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Seeking victory

Ex-addicts minister to D.C. streets

(Published March 24, 2003)

By ANDREW MOISAN

Staff Writer

As a light snow flurried down, resting atop the icy and still plenary remnants of the massive snowstorm that had bombarded the region days earlier, Henry Ellis and his group – standing amid temperatures cold enough to crack skin – couldn’t wait to hit the streets to spread the word of God.

Long after the sun had set, Ellis, 28, and eight of his students, all dressed warmly, piled into a maroon minivan parked outside the group’s office in the Sursum Corda housing development at 1176 First St. NW.

They were bound for Barry Farms in Southeast Washington, pamphlets in hand.

By the end of the night, Ellis and his group will have traversed some of the District’s roughest neighborhoods. And the next morning, they will do it again.

Ellis is one of about 25 staff members at Victory Outreach Washington, D.C., a nonprofit ministry headed locally by Pastor Joseph A. Bishop and composed of volunteers dedicated to improving the quality of life in neighborhoods beleaguered by poverty, drug addiction and prostitution.

The students, in their late teens and early 20s, are part of the Urban Training Center, a program initiated by Victory Outreach to train people interested in full-time ministry.

Working jointly with businesses, concerned citizens, community support services and police, Victory Outreach endeavors to help individuals by introducing them to Christianity and providing them with relevant resources for help with their problems. In doing so, the ministry has aimed to play an active role in quelling the rot in neighborhoods frazzled by socioeconomic decay.

Victory Outreach, which is nondenominational, established its church at 460 K Street NW. But the ministry is internationally recognized, with about 250 churches worldwide, according to Victory Outreach International president and founder Sonny Arguinzoni’s web site.

Services on K Street are held every Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m. and are open to the public.

Arguinzoni established the first Victory Outreach church, initially dubbed "The Addict Church," in 1967 in Los Angeles and designed it to be a local safe haven for drug addicts who could benefit from its "rigorous rehabilitation program," according to Arguinzoni’s web site.

Distinguishing Victory Outreach from many other organizations working to dampen the severity of the District’s problems with drugs and poverty is that the majority of its members – including President Arguinzoni – were at one time grappling with drug addictions of their own. This, and that many of the volunteers hail from the very neighborhoods they target in their outreach, amounts to a sense of familiarity that makes the ministry’s efforts more effective, members say.

The organization’s office in Sursum Corda doubles as a crisis center, called "Project Samaritan." It is accessible to residents of Sursum Corda and others in the community 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

"The center will offer opportunity as well as hope for the people of Sursum Corda and the surrounding community," Bishop said in a statement before the center opened in August 2002.

Those who find themselves at Project Samaritan’s doorstep can expect help in finding food baskets, clothing, transportation and employment services. References for job training, support groups, rehabilitation homes and drug, alcohol and biblical counseling also are available.

Last January alone, more than 150 people visited – from troubled young people to drug addicts – seeking Victory Outreach’s help. But, Bishop noted, these 150 represent only those who came to Victory Outreach.

"We give out food in the community, but not only to the people who come here; we also deliver," Bishop said. "So if a family calls and say ‘Hey we don’t have any food, we don’t have any dinner, we don’t have any breakfast,’ we will put the food together and deliver it to whoever they are."

Perhaps the most visible of the ministry’s efforts are its street outreach missions, which members call "street evangelism."

"[We] reach out into inner cities, into hard, hard neighborhoods," Ellis said. "You’ll see us in neighborhoods that don’t look so good."

Ellis and the students – who sat neatly packed in the rear of their minivan singing, laughing and praying – were on their way to such a neighborhood. In the cold, even the major thoroughfares leading to Barry Farms were coated with ice, and a few times the minivan fishtailed as Ellis tried to navigate curves. But the students continued singing and praying, seemingly undeterred.

Mia Martinez, 19, sang "Forever," one of the training center’s worship songs. Mathew Club, 22, prayed.

In Barry Farms, Ellis parked near the intersection of Wade and Stevens roads. Ellis, who grew up in the area, said the neighborhood, though conducive to their evangelism, is known for rampant open-air drug markets and high crime rates.

"This place makes Sursum Corda look like day care," Ellis said.

But Club said the group finds safety in numbers, and never splits up.

"We’re all a team," he said. "If we leave anybody behind, we break the team and we won’t be effective."

On foot and hobbling over an uneven, icy terrain, the group zeroed in on a few people standing outside a dimly lighted housing complex.

"All right, let’s do this," Ellis said.

Three or four students approached the people and handed out their fliers. They greeted them as they do most: "God bless you," one said. Members say this opening usually makes them seem unthreatening.

But passersby wouldn’t be the group’s biggest concern this night.

Not 15 minutes into their mission, and in a move that surprised even Ellis, four unmarked police vehicles approached the group. About 10 Metropolitan Police Department officers got out, flashlights in hand, and mingled among the students, who were laughing and stifling gasps of disbelief.

Minutes later, police had detained and handcuffed Joseph Lovett, 19, and were leading him to a paddy wagon that had arrived seconds earlier. Surprised and worried about their friend, the group did what it had while leaving Sursum Corda and just before getting out of their minivan here: They prayed.

Holding hands and standing in a circle, each improvised their own prayer. Starting softly and slowly, their voices rose and quickened until erupting in a chorus of nine individual prayers drifting in unison through the neighborhood.

"When we stand in the name of Jesus, we have the victory," they sang loudly.

Police appeared dumbfounded as the group prayed and sang, and eventually released Lovett. An officer threw a snowball into some trees before police dispersed.

Seventh Police District Commander Winston Robinson, whose command includes the neighborhood around Wade and Stevens roads, said Lovett had been mistakenly detained by officers who were part of a "Focused Mission Team" regularly deployed to the area.

One of the officers was undercover and posing as a prospective drug buyer when Lovett apparently handed him a pamphlet, Robinson said. Though the undercover officer knew Lovett hadn’t given him drugs, another officer who acts as an observer was stationed nearby with binoculars and mistook the innocent transaction as a drug deal, thus mobilizing the team, Robinson said.

Robinson called the incident "a misunderstanding" and affirmed that the officers know the area well. He added that police have to be particularly aggressive in that part of the city.

"If the police aren’t there, they’re rolling, man," Robinson said, referring to local drug dealers. "It’s out of control. A look – a look – can get you killed."

Ellis and the students had no hard feelings about the incident, though Martinez suggested that the ambush was actually Satan attempting to intervene. Others agreed. The group moved on to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Congress Heights before heading home.

"I think it was a pretty good night with the weather being the way it is," remarked Derick Garcia, 22.

Back in Sursum Corda, the warmth of the crisis center greeted cold, runny noses with relief as the group stripped off layers of clothing and told others about the evening’s excitement. But it wasn’t over yet.

Before any were entirely thawed, what appeared to be two men across the street from the center began fighting; the group huddled around the window to watch one body-slam the other into the snow. One member called them away from the window as others began to pray.

"Heal their hearts, God, they’re hurting, God, they don’t know that Satan’s in their lives," one said.

"Stop this fight, God," said another.

Club swayed from side to side and spoke briskly, while Martinez sat on a chair with her face buried in the armrest, whimpering.

They prayed for about 15 minutes continuously until a patrol car rolled up outside. The fight had stopped.

"God, thank you for stopping that fight, God," Club said.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator