They've Cleaned Up Their Act With Bibles and Brushes

Times Staff Writer

With rags, buckets, soap and water at the ready, the men stood in the parking lot of a service station at the corner of Rosecrans Avenue and Long Beach Boulevard in Compton.

One of them, Victor Pinon, was shouting into a bullhorn, urging motorists to pull into the lot and have their vehicles washed.

"Three dollars for cars. Four dollars for trucks and vans," Pinon shouted.

It was a Friday, not a Sunday, and this was not your typical teen-age car wash to raise money for a church event.

But there was a Bible lying nearby the car-washing equipment. And these men, five of them, were trying to raise money for a special, nonprofit church and organization known as Victory Outreach.

The five, mostly in their 20s, are former criminals, gang members, alcoholics and drug abusers who are also trying to rehabilitate themselves through the help of Victory Outreach, a fundamentalist Christian church.

"We never go anyplace without our Bible," said Ray Salas, displaying the New International Version of The Holy Bible.

Salas, like the others, lives at one of the living centers provided by the church. The money raised through the car wash, a regular fund-raising effort, will be used to help supplement the needs of church.

Salas' entire upper body is covered with tattoos, which include peacocks, Christ, an angel and his two daughters. Salas is divorced and his daughters, 9 and 10, live apart from him.

"My life was a mess before I found Victory Outreach. Now, I'm a witness for God," Salas said.

Salas, 29, was born in East Los Angeles and "grew up in the gangs." By the time he reached 14 his short life had been one endless drug and crime spree, he said.

"I spent my youth in juvenile hall and with the state youth authority for stealing cars, shoplifting and doing a lot of other things they never caught me for. I was also popping pills, drinking booze, doing marijuana and other drugs," Salas said.

Salas said he spent four years in Soledad State Prison for armed robbery. He got out two years ago.

"I had money in my pocket from selling drugs when I pulled the robbery but I couldn't stop myself from robbing the liquor store because I was high on drugs," said Salas, who heard about Victory Outreach while in prison.

"I'm a witness for Christ," repeated Salas, who has been with the church and living at its Lynwood home for men for about six months. "We are all witnesses."

Pinon, 22, from Echo Park, has been living at the Lynwood home for about three months.

"I was strung out on PCP all the time. I was making good money, $11 an hour working for (the City of) Los Angeles, replacing burned-out street lights.

"No matter how much money I made, I spent it all on PCP. I spent six months in a private rehabilitation drug program. But it didn't do me any good," Pinon said.

However, Pinon is convinced that he has found the answer to free him from his drug dependency through Victory Outreach.

"The other drug program failed because it didn't talk about God," Pinon said.

In addition to providing drug counseling, the Victory Outreach ministry provides "spiritual therapy," said Ray Torres, pastor of the Compton outreach center.

The group provides shelter and guidance for about 60 men and women at four homes in the Southeast area, said Torres. There are homes for women in the Willowbrook area and in Bell Gardens, and in Lynwood there is the home for men and one for Spanish-speaking residents.

They are referred to the program through the courts, probation departments, people who have successfully completed the program and word of mouth on the streets, Torres said.

Those who come to the program are asked to stay between nine months and a year, Torres said.

"We have good success. We believe four out of seven who come through here make it," he said.

The Victory Outreach organization was founded in East Los Angeles about 18 years ago by Sonny Arguinzoni, a former gang member and drug abuser, said Torres, who completed the program about 12 years ago. Torres also attended the Latin American Bible Institute in La Puente, an Assemblies of God school.

He has been pastor of the Compton church since 1980.

Today there are 50 Victory Outreach centers throughout the nation, Torres said.

The group, which does not receive any government assistance, is supported through such events as the car wash, donations, food sales and church member contributions. Torres said each person who comes into the program, whose staff includes not only ex-offenders but also paraprofessionals and clergymen, is asked to make a commitment to God.

If it is determined that the person needs medical help, he or she receives it, Torres said, but during "the detoxification phase we do not offer any synthetic drugs like methadone. We teach them discipline, responsibility and try and get them reconnected with their families.

"We are successful because we know what we are talking about," said Torres, 35, himself an ex-heroin addict and gang member. "We have been there. Our counselors have been on drugs, in prisons--they can relate."

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