IN THE GUTTER
Victory Fellowship brings Christ’s transforming love to the streets of San Antonio BY BARBARA J. ELLIOTT
The years Freddie Garcia spent as a heroin addict on the streets would seem to make him an unlikely candidate for sainthood. A hustler and sometime thief, he tried scores of detox programs but kept going back for another fix. He had a moment of reckoning in 1966 as he fumbled to shoot up heroin in the men’s room of a gas station, his infant daughter swaddled in toilet paper on the filthy floor. He had taken her along on holdups. He looked at her and for one lucid moment wondered what kind of father he was. There has to be a better way to live, he thought. Freddie had lived on the streets for years, stealing to support his drug habit and losing his last shred of dignity. After flunking out of every drug program he tried, he decided to try the faith-based program Teen Challenge in California— more out of desperation than hope. What he experienced there was like putting his finger into an electrical socket. The jolt of power blasted him into a whole new life. No one was more surprised than he was—unless it was
his common-law wife, Ninfa. He asked her to marry him. She thought he was loco, considering she was already the mother of his children—one of whom they had abandoned, another that they had aborted, and a third they were neglecting between bouts with drugs.They definitely qualified as a “colorful” couple: On their first date, she drove the getaway car while he robbed a convenience store. But after Freddie’s experience at Teen Challenge, Ninfa plugged into the same spiritual power he had discovered and stopped popping pills.The two of them straightened up and launched an outreach to addicts that has created ripples throughout the country and beyond for the past 35 years.With a wellspring of experience like theirs, there is no one who can talk to addicts with more conviction.They can say,“I’ve been there. I made it out with God’s help, and so can you.” What allowed a hardcore addict to kick drugs after a chain of failed attempts? Freddie says it was his conversion. He looked at the needle scars on Sonny Arguinzoni as he spread
Above: From mug shots to mentorship—Freddie Garcia shows his police photo from 1965. PRISM 2005
his arms wide, preaching,“I don’t care how much drugs you’ve shot or how many sins you’ve committed. Just come forward and ask Jesus to forgive you for all of your sins,” invited Arguinzoni,“and you’ll be a drug addict no more. Jesus wants you to change your life right now.” Freddie had ridiculed others who had gone forward before, but that day a desire to go prompted turmoil within. He stumbled forward and sank to his knees, saying,“Lord, I’m tired of using drugs. I’m tired of the life I’ve lived. Forgive me.” Freddie and Ninfa founded Victory Fellowship of Texas as a refuge for addicts, helping them leave drugs through faith. It’s not only a program—it’s a complete change of life for addicts, prostitutes, gang members, and ex-convicts. It is multifaceted: a church, outreach to gangs, prison visits, youth programs, apartment ministry, and street evangelization, with a strong dose of community building. Since 1969, this ministry has blossomed into a network of 70 affiliates, 25 in the United States and the remainder in eight Latin American countries.They have helped more than 13,000 people leave addiction and get their lives on track. When you walk into the Victory Home in San Antonio, heroin addicts may wander in at the same time, still half high but coming down.They want help. Someone there will take them in, listen to them, and promise to stay with them no matter what until they are through detox. For the next hours, or days if needed, someone will sit with them, wipe their foreheads when they get the sweats, hold a bowl when they vomit, talk to them when they can’t sleep, and pray them through the pain. Every single person helping the 70 addicts in care at Victory Fellowship in San Antonio knows exactly what the detoxers are going through, because they have been there themselves:They are all former addicts.They offer a structured life in the homes, based on love, authority, supervision, and discipline. Schedules are firm; order is mandatory.
Participants stay in a home from six months to a year. House parents who live there model a Christian life round the clock, slowly transforming character. Based on its internal tracking, Victory Fellowship finds that 70 percent of those who stay to finish the program stay off drugs. Freddie is crystal clear about the difference between reforming and transforming an addict: He combats addiction with spiritual transformation. “If you treat an addict with a drug rehab program, all you have is a reformed junkie,” he says, seated at the kitchen table of his home, which serves as the hub for his ministry. “If an addict meets Christ, he is transformed. He’s a whole new person.” Freddie has a straightforward approach to dealing with addiction that flies in the face of our therapeutic culture. “Drugs aren’t the problem,” he says.“Drugs are a symptom of the problem.”The addictturned-pastor is just getting warmed up.“Everybody’s got an explanation for the problem. Psychologists call it emotional disturbance. Sociologists call it the product of our environment. Educators call it the lack of education.” He drives home his conclusion:“Sin is the problem. Jesus Christ is the answer.” On a given afternoon, you will see former addicts in small clusters in front of the home, their heads bowed over Bibles in one-on-one scripture study in the hot Texas sun. Ninfa takes a break from teaching the women participants in order to stir a huge pot of beans in the kitchen, one that is always simmering to feed the hungry hordes that show up at the front door.Across town in one of the apartment complexes, one of Freddie’s protégés is talking to a kid who has taken refuge in his apartment there, trying to escape the crossfire of warring gangs in the barrio.The apartment that has been given to Victory Fellowship is a sanctuary for people trying to escape a bullet or a beating at the hands of an abuser. It also serves as a ministry incubator to train people who later go into other communities to do outreach for Victory Fellowship.This learning lab for new members of the ministry provides hands-on experience with domestic violence, gang intervention, and all the other maladies they will face. It’s not exactly the kind of training you’d get at divinity school or in a sociology department. “Our people may not have PhDs,” Freddie says, “but they have an education you can’t get at Yale or Harvard.” When a somewhat timid-looking group of well-heeled philanthropists disgorged from buses to experience Victory Fellowship in San Antonio not long ago, they were ushered into an auditorium-style building for a presentation.“It’s a good
Signage outside Victory Fellowship announces Freddie and Ninfa’s book, Outcry in the Barrio, and their ministry’s motto: Expect a Miracle. PRISM 2005
Former addicts, now clean and following Christ, prayerfully accompany new residents as they go through the trauma of detox.
thing they don’t know who’s in here with them,” Freddie chuckled. “I’ll bet they’ve never been in a room with this many murderers, thieves, pimps, and prostitutes. The only requirement you have to get into my program is to be some kind of criminal,” he said with a mischievous glint.“God has raised up an army of rejects.” Wearing combat boots and fatigues, the choir of former addicts thundered in to give a heartrending performance of gospel music with a Tejano flavor. Traces of their dissolute lives were still visible in their faces. Under the direction of the Garcias’ son Jubal, who is being groomed for leadership, former gangbangers presented a drama depicting life in the barrio that was wrenchingly real. At the end of presentations like this, Freddie tells the audience:“Listen to me,folks,the miracle that took place in our lives didn’t happen when we called upon the name of Socrates, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud. This transformation took place in our lives when we called upon the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was he who broke the shackles of sin and drug addiction and set us free.” Victory Fellowship takes the message of transformation to the streets. Former addicts go out at night, walking right into the middle of drug transactions and gang confrontations.These are the same guys who may have trafficked in that exact neighborhood before they changed. Now they are there trying to save the lives of anyone who will listen and leave that way of life.To the addicts who refuse to listen, they just shrug and say, “That’s okay.We’ll come visit you when you’re in jail.” A remarkable number of the addicts who succeed at Victory Fellowship stay on to become a part of the work. A whole generation of disciples has been equipped, trained, nurtured, and deployed to expand Victory Fellowship, which is serving primarily the Latino population in Texas, with outposts in Mexico and Central and South America. In each of the 70 locations, a drug program and a church are planted to work side by side. Initially Freddie sent his leaders to Bible school, which he had completed, but he concluded they needed a more specific education tailored to the kind of work they would be doing. Freddie puts future leaders through his own three-year program in San Antonio, which includes study of the Bible and leadership skills along with face-to-face discipleship. Once the new leaders are launched, they continue to come back for additional training and can access crisis intervention help if needed; they always work within a framework of accountability. Joe Hernandez, another of Freddie’s protégés, heads a Victory Home in Houston, for example. As an addict, Hernandez found his way into Victory Fellowship several years ago, taking refuge while healing from a gunshot wound. He says he “had hit rock bottom” but still thought he was “pretty slick” and didn’t really need “any of the religious
stuff they were talking about.” But his interest was piqued by the authenticity of this unusual outfit. Hernandez stayed, and eventually committed his life to Christ;he has become a preacher and ministry leader himself. The home he now heads in Houston can house 50 men in transition from addiction to sobriety and employment. It is immaculate and run with military precision.The small church Hernandez pastors cares for the families of the addicts as well as for people in the neighborhood. He and his wife return to San Antonio intermittently for training and interaction with their counterparts. Victory Fellowship operates on a frugal budget with a wing and a prayer—they never charge participants anything. All the affiliates face the same problem of trying to raise money in a sector of the community that’s chronically poor. Even Freddie Garcia, who has been honored in the White House Rose Garden and has a wall full of plaques in his living room, ekes out funds for his ministry. Good work does not necessarily equal money. It’s a typical problem for street saints, who are fully focused on their mission and are neither professional fundraisers nor in a position to hire one.They serve a population that’s burly, tattooed, and scarred—too rough to attract most socialite gala organizers. But Garcia and the scores of former addicts he has inspired to become street saints like him are too busy to be concerned. Their mission is to do the hard work of transforming a tough population. The proof of their success is in thousands of changed lives. What happens at Victory Fellowship has the capacity to move people, if they will just go and see it.A group of businesspeople in San Antonio was so captivated that they recently pooled their resources to help Freddie and Ninfa purchase seven acres of land, where three future dormitories and a multipurpose building are being financed by these anonymous donors. “We never could have done this,” Ninfa says. “We don’t know how to begin, and don’t know these kinds of people. It really has to have been God at work.” ■ (You can learn more about the Ninfas and their ministry at www.VictoryFellowship.com or contact them at 1030 SW 39th St., San Antonio,TX 78237, tel. 210.433.0028.) Barbara J. Elliott is the founder of the Center for Renewal, which serves the leaders of faith-based groups.This essay was adapted from her book Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004) and is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.
BY BARBARA J. ELLIOTT Above:From mug shots to mentorship—Freddie Garcia shows his police photo from 1965. 15 PRISM 2005 Signage outside Vict...