All over the world, Victory Outreach churches reach out to the downtrodden, including drug users, alcoholics and gang members.
In Oakland, a branch of the Pentecostal church is also trying to bring sex workers and sexually exploited youth in off the streets.
Their main tool is prayer. But in a city where police and prosecutors have tried to turn the tide of sex trafficking for more than a decade, can appeals to God really make a difference?
Looking for girls
It’s a Friday night, and Ebony Salazar is driving down International Boulevard in Oakland looking for girls. At around 36th Avenue, she slows down.
“We’re looking for girls that are out there, selling their bodies,” she explains.
At nearly every street corner, block by block, Salazar sees are another few women and girls.
Many look fashionable, some in heels, with hair and makeup done, like young people in any city ready for a night out. Others are just in bathing suits and leotards.
Cars are blasting music, swirling around like sharks. Two young women on the corner smile and wave at the drivers, waiting for the next trick.
Salazar jumps out of the car. The young women walk away, and a man drives up close next to them, swearing. Salazar says he’s probably their pimp, and she calls after them:
“Jesus loves you!” Salazar yells.
A spiritual awakening
Salazar is here to invite the girls to pray, and if she can, get them to church.
Prayer is what helped her — and she believes in its power to turn a life around.
Salazar says before she found a Victory Outreach church three years ago, she was addicted to drugs, and arrested multiple times. Even after entering a rehab program, she wasn’t convinced she wanted to change.
“Although I was in the program, I didn't want to get my life together,” Salazar says. “I wasn't ready to stop using drugs, I wasn't ready to stop doing any of that.”
Then someone at rehab invited her to a Victory Outreach service, with its focus on people with really tough lives.
Salazar says that through faith, she overcame her addiction, and connected with the community.
“You know, a good majority came from the lifestyle I came from. So that definitely made me attracted to the ministry,” Salazar says. “The power of God began to change my life. I didn't want to do things I used to do anymore.”
Now she’s out here on International Boulevard with a group of volunteers from Victory Outreach Oakland, offering God’s salvation.
A small team from the church walks the streets on weekend nights, handing out fliers with scripture.
They give their own phone numbers and encourage those they meet to call anytime.
“God didn’t call us to just sit here and be saved,” Salazar explains. “He called us to go out and reach those like people reached us. The culture it is, is to reach the prostitutes, to reach the gang member, to reach the drug addict, to reach the hurting people of the inner cities.”
“I might need therapy. But I don’t need help.”
Oakland has one of the biggest sex trafficking hubs in the country. According to the Alameda County District Attorney, police estimate 100 minors sell their bodies on the streets here every night.
Many start when they’re 12 to 14.
Salazar says, from coming out here regularly, they know some of the girls. “We know by first name, when they see us walking up, they already know we're going to pray for them."
Salazar approaches a young woman who she recognizes. The woman didn’t want to give her name, but describes herself as an entrepreneur. She says she’s been working the streets for two years now, beginning at age nineteen.
“I was kind of manipulated into the situation, and once I did it, I realized how easy it was, and how fast it was,” the girl says. “I don’t do it for a pimp, I do it for myself.
She has bright, sparkly eye shadow and long eyelashes. She says that while she doesn’t need saving, the church group might find someone who does.
“You might find somebody who really needs help, because there's girls who are in worse situations than I am, who are forced and beaten in this, and you might save a life,” the girl says. As for her, she says: “I might need therapy, but I don’t need help.”
Praying on the streets
On the next block, Salazar approaches a tall, black girl in a short, red dress. Nearly 80 percent of the sexually exploited young people in Oakland are African American.
“I just want to came out here, sharing the love of Jesus,” Salazar tells the girl. “I know he has a plan for you and it’s not this.”
The girl keeps her eyes focused on the traffic in front of her. She’s working, and says she doesn’t want to pray here.
“Not out here,” she tells Salazar. “I pray before I come out, and I pray when I go back in.”
“You can pray anywhere,” Salazar tells her. “It don’t matter where you’re at. If you want to get out of here.”
After the girl walks away, Salazar says, “A lot of them are like that, they don’t want to pray. They’re embarrassed, ashamed, like: ‘How can I accept prayer when I’m out here selling my body?’”
Back in the car, Tamika Soto, who is doing outreach on International Boulevard with Salazar tonight, explains that she does not feel afraid when she canvases these streets at night. “It’s prayer. God is with us, love drives out all fear,’ she says. “It's god's presence, we don't feel fear.”
Even if she isn’t scared, she says that seeing girls on the streets night after night can feel like a heavy burden.
“Like something so heavy on your heart that you just want to do something,” she says. “So you pray and you ask God for a strategy, like a plan to help these people.”
Sunday at Victory Outreach
Victory Outreach volunteers say it’s rare for women and girls from International Boulevard to show up at the church, but they say it does happen.
Typical Sunday services bring a small but passionate crowd. One winter Sunday there are about 30 churchgoers, mostly black and Latino, with kids in tow, all in their Sunday best, listening to guest preacher Philip Lacrue.
“Many of us ... who came from a lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, running the streets, gang activity, trouble with the police, in and out of prison,” he says, “for many of us that came out of that lifestyle, we came in with nothing. As we say in Spanish, con nada.”
“We get a job, a home, a car, we start acquiring some things, and we serve the Lord.” Lacrue preaches. “And very often people get comfortable with where they’re at with their walk with God.” “
“That’s right,” the crowd murmurs.
“But this morning I want to challenge you to examine your spiritual status,” Lacrue says, slowing down. “And the question is, to see all you can be doing for God’s kingdom. Or is there something more that God requires of us?”
Sylvia Vigil sits listening a few rows back. She started the weekend street ministries on International Boulevard in Oakland almost a decade ago, and continues to organize them. She shakes a tambourine with every amen.
From party girl to pastor’s wife
Vigil’s story is similar to the other night ministry volunteers. At 19, Vigil was a self-described party girl, going to the disco regularly. When she finally accepted an invitation to go to a Victory Outreach service, she carried drugs with her that day.
“I remember walking into the church and they were having a revival at that time, and I remember that the preacher was preaching and then he even said, ‘Some of you have drugs on you right now.’ And so I'm thinking to myself, who told this man?”
Vigil remembers walking up to the altar and asked God to change her life. The next day, headed to work, she decided she didn’t want to do or sell drugs anymore.
“I mean I went in one way and I came out totally different.”
Vigil’s outreach efforts on Oakland’s streets started in 2010. By then, her husband was the Oakland church’s pastor and she, the pastor’s wife. She started leading what she calls “spiritual drive bys” to bring young women in from the streets and out of the sex trade.
But aside from prayer and invitations to Church, what Victory Outreach Oakland can offer to the women and girls of International Boulevard is limited.
They used to operate a women’s recovery home, but it closed down a few years back due to a lack of resources.
Vigil says they make referrals to other Victory Outreach homes outside of Oakland. But anyone who accepts must go through the Church’s evangelical training and rehabilitation program, which requires church attendance.
“We have a mandate,” she explains. “So we can't allow people to come into our homes smoking, having sex, cussing, when they come in. We let them know, we want to pray for you, and then they come in and get involved in church. All we ask is that they get involved in church.”
It’s hard to judge success. Vigil says they help girls off the street through Victory Outreach’s street ministries. But we didn’t find anyone who would talk to us and confirm that the Church had helped to change their lives.
The anti-trafficking movement
Holly Joshi is executive director of a MISSSEY, an advocacy group based in Oakland. She says what Victory Outreach has taken on is ambitious, and even dangerous. Because curbing sexual exploitation is a huge task.
“People are asking if it's getting better,” she says. “And it doesn't seem like the numbers are going down.”
Joshi says it’s essential for people tackling this problem to connect with a larger network of advocacy groups.
She also says it’s critical to attack the underlying societal causes of sex trafficking — like a lack of job opportunities, racism and violence that push girls on to the streets. And the demand from johns and pimps that keep them there.
“One of the biggest things I think that we're finally realizing ... is that we can't do the anti-trafficking movement in a bubble or in a silo,” she says. “We're connected to Black Lives Matter. We're connected to the Me Too movement. You know all of the movements that are fighting for the rights of marginalized groups is our fight.”
Victory Outreach’s approach is far less political. Instead, it’s centered around prayer, the Bible, and perhaps an offer of hope.
On a Friday night around 10 p.m., the Victory Outreach volunteers are back out looking for girls on International Boulevard. Ebony Salazar recognizes a young woman with a round, baby face.
She tells Salazar she’s six weeks pregnant. And, she says, prayer keeps her calm. They bow their heads together and pray while the traffic whistles by.
“I lift up her knees father God,” Salazar says in a soft voice. “We know where she's at. We know what it's going to take. Father, God, I ask that you protect her.”
This young woman may never show up at the church. But the interaction means something to her. And in a few weeks, Victory Outreach will be back out on the streets again, to meet her where she's at.