The two young women gaped as they looked into the haunting faces of what might have been their future. Standing amid heaps of rubber tires and garbage, they looked at two older women who stood before them.
Monica Ortiz, 17 and her cousin Deidre Kincannon, 20, aren't that much younger than the two homeless crack addicts living next to railroad tracks in the industrial wilderness on the border of Wilmington and Long Beach. Adrianne, 26, and Kristal, 23, talked about how they saw men get killed, including Kristal's boyfriend, and women sell their bodies just for "a hit" in this area called "the Junks."
Now it was the homeless women's turn to be surprised as they learned that Ortiz and Kincannon were once members of violent tagging crews.
Under the tutelage of the Last Call Christian Outpost in Long Beach, people like Ortiz and Kincannon who had once been gang members, runaways, drug addicts or taggers were out on this recent Sunday to feed the homeless. They were also there to learn--some for the first time in their lives--how to share with others.
"Giving empowers them and gives them satisfaction," explained Gina M. Rodriguez, 31, once a rock cocaine addict and teenage runaway, who heads the Christian Outpost. "They've taken from their parents, their friends, from strangers. If they learn to give, they learn to focus on others rather than themselves."
The Christian Outpost members walked across railroad tracks, passing out dozens of plastic yellow raincoats and 300 lunch bags filled with sandwiches, juice and chips. They gave kisses and hugs to men and women who hadn't showered in months. They bowed their heads and prayed.
Adrianne looked at Kincannon, still stunned by what she had learned about her past, and said: "You are just so young. This is so sweet and touching. You don't judge us."
With tears in her eyes, she admitted that she had an 11-year-old son and her own mother waiting for her to come home. Rodriguez assured Adrianne that she didn't belong in the Junks and encouraged her to join the Christian Outpost and others there who had escaped the streets.
As former Wilmington gang member Jesse Olivares, 20, and his 18-year-old wife, Angelina, gave out lunches, they watched many of the homeless strangers run off or vanish silently without a thank you. They said they didn't mind, intent on touching as many lives as they could.
They, like others in Christian Outpost, believe that without Rodriguez and her husband, Art, their own lives would have remained as hopeless as those of the people they were trying to help.
Gina Rodriguez opened the Outpost as a branch of Art Rodriguez's 3-year-old ministry, the Last Call Evangelistic Assn. in San Pedro.
The Olivareses offered their apartment as a base for Gina Rodriguez to run the Christian Outpost while they look for larger space. Bible study is held there every Sunday night.
The Rodriguezes opened a residential home for men in 19x9, a week after they were married, and weathered a storm of vanishing food, money and equipment. They clung to their work when they saw that lives could be changed by the program sponsored by Risen Sun Ministries.
Art Rodriguez, a security specialist at a Warner Bros. sound studio and a manufacturing plant in City of Commerce who is an ex-convict once hooked on heroin and PCP, supported his wife's decision to open the outpost.
The Rev. Gricelda Rodriguez, who is not related to Art and Gina, praised Gina Rodriguez for her ability to work with young people. "They are powerful as a team and as an individual, he has fire," said Gricelda Rodriguez, who is pastor of Praise Temple in Colton. "Who wants to do this when they could be off making money?"
When Angelina Olivares saw her husband change from gangster to a loving father, she got on the phone and asked friends to join them at the Christian Outpost.
Noemi Gonzalez, 20, was one of the first. She had been a teenage runaway and a heavy drinker. And she had seen her boyfriend get shot in the head and legs by a gang member and her brother shot and killed.
After joining the Christian Outpost, she stopped drinking.
"I've never helped out like this before," she said as she passed out food to the homeless with other Christian Outpost members. "When I was lost out there, I just needed a hug, a kiss."