Turning things around

People entering Parque Naciones Unidas in El Paraiso on a recent Saturday night sang along to the rock music booming out of the stadium. Vendors sold empanadas, soft drinks, headbands, and t-shirts. It seemed like the standard Venezuelan Basketball League (LVB) pre-game fervor.
But instead of a basketball game, Parque Naciones Unidas was holding a religious revival. The headbands read “Jesus Christ” and “Nicky Cruz” for the Nuyorican former gang member turned Pentecostal missionary star who headlined the event. Inside, a few thousand people waited for the preaching, testifying and praying to start.
Victory Outreach Venezuela, a Pentecostal ministry headquartered in California, threw the three-day revival, which starred Cruz along with singer Alvaro Lopez and Victory Outreach’s founder and president Cruz “Sonny” Arguinzoni. Between testimonies from former drug addicts about how God changed their lives, a Latin rock band and a rapper, both praising the Lord, got the crowd going.
Calling itself the church of the inner city, Victory Outreach has grown to over 500 churches in 23 countries by targeting the poorest and most desperate. The revival stage’s backdrop made the appeal, “Drugs. Violence. Is there hope?” Victory Outreach is reaching out to the marginalized, finding them work, giving them hope and showing them a way out of the spiritual trauma of social marginalization.
It takes one to know one
Pastor Manuel Aguirre knows what he’s talking about when he discusses getting people off drugs. Born in the northern Mexican state of Baja California, Aguirre grew up on both sides of the border, becoming a heroin addict and gang leader. As the second in command of the Border Brothers gang, Aguirre earned three trips to California prisons, including a three-year stay in San Quentin next to Death Row where he’d see Charles Manson from time to time.
Growing up poor and fatherless, he and his brother Jesus spent their days on the streets. “We were out on the streets where scoundrels tried to take advantage of us,” said Aguirre. “We had to learn to defend ourselves.”
After San Quentin, Aguirre returned to Mexicali where his sister Guadalupe lived. It was there that “God made a miracle,” as Aguirre put it.
Across from a favorite “shooting gallery,” a place to shoot heroin, Aguirre found a Victory Outreach church. Unable to tolerate his life of addiction and violence any longer, Aguirre put in the will to overcome heroin, and God did the rest.
“What the psychiatrist and my mother couldn’t accomplish, God did,” said Aguirre.
Aguirre implies that God is an essential part of the rehabilitation process, a sentiment shared by former addicts like Yasmin de Ojeda. “What really gets you through rehab is the belief that Jesus Christ will help you,” she said.
José Cedeño, another Victory Outreach church member, attributes his successful rehabilitation to his will power and a little divine intervention. “He does it when one is willing,” said Cedeño.
According to Aguirre, “I’ve never known a drug addict that didn’t want to quit.” But there’s a world of difference between wanting to quit and resolving to do so. Once the addict commits to change, former addicts turned rehabilitation coaches lead the addict through the desert.
“These people have been there,” said Aguirre. Their job is to help give lives in total disarray a heavy dose of discipline. Larry Escobar, another former addict and Victory Outreach member, admits that it’s a brutally harsh adjustment. “It’s not easy,” said Escobar. “We live such undisciplined lives. We don’t like being told what to do.”
Victory Outreach rehabilitation homes provide structure and constant attention. But part of the rehabilitation process includes staying off drugs once the patient returns to society. And for that, former addicts need job opportunities.
“When I met with [now Caracas Mayor Juan] Barreto,” recounted Aguirre, “I asked him, ‘What good is it if I get 100 addicts off the streets if they can’t feed themselves?'” Aguirre isn’t a big fan of politics, but sees it as a necessary evil. In seeking to meet these economic needs, Victory Outreach already offers carpentry workshops to former addicts.
Unlike the Catholic Church-“they don’t touch social issues, nor do they concern themselves with daily life”-Aguirre claims that Victory Outreach is addressing the social. Although it’s not their forte, he knows that job training is crucial to keeping people off drugs. That position is in keeping with a general attention to worldly affairs. Aguirre puts it this way, “We’re going to heaven, but what does God want for me here on earth?”

Saved and sound
Although many overcome addiction without religion, some harness the power of faith to conquer deep physical and psychological dependence as well as spiritual trauma.
Meet José Cedeño today and you’d never guess that this friendly young man once stole to support a drug habit. He started selling drugs at 16, and smoking bazuco, crack residue, at 18. At 21, he was smoking crack. “I just got worse and worse,” said Cedeño.
Cedeño twice ended up in jail for robbery, serving a 6 month sentence in Las Flores de Catia, then two years in Rodeo. Back home in Petare’s Negro Primero barrio, he stole a VCR from a neighbor’s home, but not without waking them up. “They wanted to lynch me,” said Cedeño. “The entire community surrounded my house, and then the police showed up.”
Cedeño hid under a bed from where he could hear the officers say, “We’re going to killing him.” His stealing had grown to be such a nuisance that the community would have killed him if the officers hadn’t. But Cedeño got lucky.
“The cops came into the room and looked under the bed,” recounted Cedeño. “But they didn’t see me. God was watching over me.”
He knew he couldn’t stay in Petare, but he didn’t know where to go. Cedeño’s mother gave him a Victory Outreach brochure, and told him “Go to rehabilitation.” Cedeño didn’t have much of a choice. “I was looking to escape because in the barrio they wanted to kill me,” said Cedeño.
Cedeño traveled to the rehabilitation house in La Vega, but turned back just as he was reaching it. Realizing he had nowhere to go, he turned around again.
Cedeño’s first week of rehabilitation was hell. “I wanted to leave, so I could consume [drugs],” he said. That’s when Hipolito Gonzalez, the rehabilitation house director, would calm Cedeño down and read to him from the Bible. Ramon Reyes later testified about his own recovery, motivating Cedeño to stay the course. “I thought, ‘If they could do it, so could I.'”
Aguirre’s strategy of winning over the addict, then bringing in the family, worked. “80 percent of my family is [evangelical] Christian now,” said Cedeño. “Without God [helping me through this], I’d be dead.”
Cedeño attributes the barrio’s social problems to broken families and loneliness. “My parents divorced, leaving me to fend for myself,” he said. “I felt very lonely. I don’t blame my family, but I consider family the base of society,” making a broken family’s members more susceptible to addiction and crime.
While showing what faith can do to get people off drugs, Cedeño’s story also suggests how far a lot of love and concern can go. According to Cedeño, Victory Outreach is “going where no one else goes, not even the police.” That humane commitment, as much as the power of faith, is what drew people to the religious revival at Parque Naciones Unidas, and what keeps gaining Victory Outreach more members.

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