by Pia K. Hansen

It's already plenty hot in the parking lot behind Victory Outreach Ministry in Hillyard. But the heat provided by Mother Nature is nothing compared to the heat the church continues to take for the mural it put up earlier this summer.

Victory Outreach Ministry is located on the corner of Wellesley and Haven in a former nursing home. Since the Ministry moved in six years ago, neighbors have not seen a lot of activity there, except that the windows facing Haven have been boarded up. That is, until the new mural came along.

At the east end of the building, the Greater Hillyard Business Association (GHBA) had previously sponsored a mural showing Hill's Yard -- a tribute to the railroad magnate this part of town is named after.

Now, at the other end of the building -- facing southbound traffic on Haven -- passersby can see a huge depiction of a man smoking pot, another man smoking crack, a prostitute posing for a trick, a gun pointing directly out at the neighborhood and a woman shooting heroin into her own badly bruised arm.

The mural, which is very detailed and professionally done -- this is not a case of a bunch of 12-year-olds let loose with spray cans -- has been called ugly, inappropriate, offensive, too graphic and disgusting by people who live in the neighborhood or have driven by on the street.

"We could not even believe our eyes," says Dotty McCormick, who drove by the mural. "We live in Deer Park, we were driving through with the whole family in the car, and I saw this out of the corner of my eye -- I was, like, 'Wait a minute, back up.' I couldn't believe it was on the back of a church."

But Javier Islas, the director of the youth outreach ministry, says people like McCormick are missing the point.

"Right there, on the mural, is the hand of Jesus reaching out to the people doing drugs or drinking or whatever it is. It shows that through God everything is possible," he explains. "That the solutions to these problems are in a biblical experience. That's in a nutshell what the mural is about. Perhaps the people who are so outraged about the mural can use it as a conversation-starter with their own kids."

McCormick isn't convinced.

"You don't see the hand of Jesus; you see all the bad things," she says. "What is this going to be showing children? I mean, there are schools and pools near by. They are showing kids how to do drugs. I feel like we should do something about it coming down."

Some have assumed that the mural was part of the GHBA's effort to decorate the many bare walls in the area. That's not the case.

"They better get that straight," says Larry Thomas, owner of the Hillyard Florist. "I wrote the checks for the three other murals, as the treasurer of the business association, but we had nothing to do with this one." Thomas adds that he doesn't have an official opinion on the church's mural.

Ann-Marie Hamilton is the chairwoman of GHBA and she says residents as well as business owners are divided over the mural's impact.

"I've seen the painting. I have mixed feelings about it," says Hamilton. "Some of the businesses don't care for it, and some of the businesses see the deeper meaning in it. I mean, it's from the church's point of view. They didn't talk to anyone about doing it."

The pastor of the church, Alvin Moreno, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Islas says that the church has gotten some negative phone calls about the mural, but insists that it has served a positive purpose as well.

"We have gotten families to come in here after the painting was done -- families who like how we associate with the underdog, so to speak," Islas says. He goes on to explain that somewhere between 10 and 15 clients stay with him at the ministry on a continuous basis, trying to deal with their drug and alcohol addiction.

"It's a 12-month treatment program, seven days a week, 24 hours a day," he explains. "There are three core values to the program: a spiritual commitment to Jesus, a work ethic -- you work six days a week and on one day you rest -- and a relational value, where we work on anger management, or try to bring broken families back together again."

Islas knows the routine because he is a product of the ministry's outreach work; he was involved with drugs and gangs -- "the whole thing" -- 20 years ago in Fresno, Calif.

Victory Outreach is a worldwide network of more than 500 ministries located in 18 countries, including Mexico and the Netherlands. Led by a board of nine elders, the church -- which was originally known as the Addict Church -- was founded by Pastor Sonny and Julie Arguinzoni in 1967 in East Los Angeles.

Islas was asked by the church to move to Spokane and help out after Pastor Moreno suffered some severe health problems.

"He needed a liver transplant because of the drug use he went through earlier on in his life," explains Islas. "He got the transplant, and he's doing great, but that's why so little has happened here at the church the last six years."

But is it really necessary to do a mural this graphic, to draw attention to what is essentially a drug-treatment program? Why not draw a big red sign that says, 'Get help here'?

"I don't apologize for it," says Islas, flat out. "I have come to the conclusion that we are a unique ministry and we work in a unique way. This mural is a statement for our business, how we do business. It sends a message that here is a ministry designed to reach out to addicts and prostitutes -- these are the people we are trying to reach."

The Ministry plans to reopen the boarded-up section of the building as a recovery center for women who are victims of domestic violence.

As for the impact on Hillyard's reputation as a rough part of town that has nonetheless done a lot to clean up and develop its Main Street area over the last couple of years, the business association's Hamilton isn't too worried.

"I don't think it's such a bad thing to get people to notice something different, to shake things up a little bit. It's not going to hurt," she says. "The church is really trying to make an effort to move forward. The people I have talked to, who have been involved in the outreach ministry, give the church a lot of praise. The program has changed their lives, they say."

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Publication date: 08/28/03

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