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'I could see their tears': Pastor changes lives while struggling through pandemic

Times-News - 7/25/2020

Jul. 24--BURLEY -- Dace Henrie used to drink every day -- up to a gallon and a half of the cheapest vodka he could find. When he woke up in an Elko, Nevada, tent city, he knew that if he didn't change his path, he would soon die.

Henrie, now 52, was so sick he could barely walk a few feet at a time.

"Something told me I was going to die if I didn't stop drinking," he said.

Henrie decided to fight for his life after he entered Helping Hands A Ministry of Victory Home Restoration Center in Burley.

The nonprofit ministry offers residential coeducational classes and counseling for addicts, along with help for people who find themselves homeless or are just lost and hurting.

Recently founded by the owners of Victory Home Restoration Center in Twin Falls, the former homeless mission and food pantry opened its doors shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The financial strain has drastically changed the center's outlook and ability to stay open, Tony Lopez, pastor of the nondenominational ministry, told the Times-News.

A helping hand

Over a span of six years, Henrie aimlessly traversed the country seven times by stealing rides on railroad cars. He etched a railroad tie across the black tracks tattooed on his wrist each time he crossed the U.S.

"I don't remember a lot about those six years," he said. "My short-term memory is shot now" due to alcohol abuse.

Carrying a tall backpack on his shoulders, he slept wherever he landed, panhandled and took odd jobs to feed his burning desire for gut-rot liquor. He drank booze and ate little food while his body dwindled to 140 pounds.

When he grew tired of one place, he'd hop on a railroad car and set off for a fresh location. He often woke up in a city far from where he'd last been, not knowing where he was.

A woman he knows only as "Pastor" approached him in Elko, and, after being told there was a two-week wait to get into a rehabilitation center there, she told him of a place called Victory Home.

Henrie promised to meet the woman the next morning to get a ride to Twin Falls.

"I got drunk that night and blew it off but she chased me down in the streets," Henrie said. "She was PO'd and told me she would give me one more chance.

"I did get drunk again the next night but I was ready to go with her in the morning."

'I could jump out of this window and get away'

In Twin Falls, Victory Home referred Henrie to Helping Hands, its ministry in Burley. When he arrived at the new center, he was still drunk and couldn't get out of bed for a week.

When he finally awoke, he peered out a second-story window in his bunk room.

"My first thought was, I could jump out of this window and get away," Henrie said.

But another resident at the center told him didn't have to jump out of the window -- if he wanted to leave, he could just walk out the front door.

"In rehab, you are locked up and you do their rules," Henrie said. "We do have rules here, but the door is always open."

After the first 30 days at the center, he committed to stay the course and he recently graduated from the one-year program.

The center's program includes classes, counseling, chores and an adult work program led by Tony Lopez. The work program offers services like roofing, flooring, carpentry, plumbing and electrical to the community, which helps fund the center -- and teaches work skills to the participants.

Transitional living apartments are available for people as they ease back into society. After graduation, Henrie decided to stay awhile.

From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, he now works as the kitchen manager at Helping Hands, but he will soon shift to another role. He doesn't yet know what he will be doing.

"Maybe it will be ministry," he said. "I think that may be my calling. I was brought here for a reason."

The center helped him develop a relationship with God, which is now at the center of his life.

"I always believed in God, I just didn't really know how to believe in God, if that makes sense," he said. "I was just saying the words."

Instead of a rehab center, he said, Helping Hands is truly a restoration center.

"This is my home now, my family," he said.

'Addicts will always find an excuse'

The Wyoming native wasn't always a drifter. Before Henrie's stint of non-stop drinking and hopping on rail cars, he was sober for 14 years, married to a teacher and owned a flooring company.

The catalyst for the shift in lifestyle was the death of his 21-year-old son, Sammy, who died of alcohol poisoning. But his son's death is just an excuse to justify his alcoholism and old lifestyle, he quickly pointed out.

Addicts, Henrie said, will always find an excuse.

"I still struggle every day with demons," he said.

Although he still craves smoking cigarettes, his desire for alcohol seems to be quenched.

"I can say I'm dead certain that I will never drink again," he said.

'The dope man doesn't care about you'

Josh Martin of Pocatello was addicted to methamphetamine and had been in and out of prison when, last Christmas, he told his mother he needed help.

"I told her I was either going to get help, get locked up or die," the 26-year-old Martin said.

A pastor's wife had told Martin's mother about Helping Hands and his mother drove him to the center.

A dreary sky cast pallor over Martin's mood Dec. 28 as he walked through the doors of the center for the first time.

The facility was being remodeled and no one was around and everything just "looked weird," he said.

"But I told my mom, 'If I walk out of these doors now, you won't see me again,'" Martin said, sensing his life of gangs and drugs would cause his death. "'If you take me back home, it's a wrap.'"

"I didn't know if I was being thrown into the lion's den or what," he said about entering the center. "And then my mom left me here and it was the best decision I've made in my life."

He'd never been anywhere like it before; people were so friendly, he said. They reached out to him to find out what he needed, like clothing or a hygiene kit.

"At first I pushed back," Martin said. "I felt like 'you don't know me.' But then I started to see they were genuinely caring people."

The classes helped, he said, but a big life shift came when he gave God control of his life.

Martin grew up in a Christian home, living a privileged childhood filled with four-wheelers, dirt bikes and baseball games.

"I think being raised in a Christian home made me rebuke that life even harder," he said.

His 14-year-old brother tells Martin he wants to be just like him when he grows up.

"That scares me," he said. But his brother's words keep him moving forward.

"At the end of the day, the dope man doesn't care about you," he said. "Only God and family care about you."

He feels happy now -- and not just on the outside but on the inside, too.

"I'm fixing the root cause and keeping my eyes on God," Martin said.

'I thought I'd go to hell'

Abandoned by his addict mother and father at 5, Tony Lopez stayed for a few months at Victory Outreach in San Antonio, a faith-based homeless shelter and drug, alcohol and gang recovery center.

Ex-addict Freddie Garcia launched Victory Outreach ministry with his wife, Ninfa, in 1970, according to his obituary published in My San Antonio newspaper in 2009. Garcia's best-selling book, "Outcry in the Barrio," detailed his life and influenced many drug addicts to seek help. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush gave him a national Achievement Against the Odds award at the White House.

Lopez was returned to his grandfather, a former drug dealer, before becoming a ward of the state. He lived in a series of 25 foster homes before he aged out of foster care -- at 17 years, 6 months -- on the streets of San Antonio.

On his own, he quickly became intimate with heroin and gangs; robbing and stealing became a routine part of life as he floated in and out of jail.

One night on the streets of San Antonio, Lopez had an experience that foreshadowed the eventual course of his life and ministry.

Lopez saw a bus coming down the street from Victory Outreach, the same center where he'd stayed briefly as a young child. He watched as the people on the bus clapped their hands and sang, praising Jesus. He immediately dismissed them "as a bunch of losers," he said.

What he didn't know at the time was how his lifestyle would spiral to despair and that he would eventually model a new ministry based on Victory Outreach called Victory Home Restoration Center in the Magic Valley.

Eventually, Lopez began moving drugs from San Antonio to Jerome. He shot a man during a drug deal and ended up running from San Antonio police.

His life tumbled to an all-time low.

"I can't pay the drug man and I'm sitting in a motel running from the cops," Lopez said. "I know I'm going to end up in prison. I tried to put a gun to my head but I didn't want to do that because I thought I'd go to hell."

Lopez stayed up for 14 days straight, shooting and snorting drugs until blood ran down his arms and face.

His aunt rescued him and as they drove down the street, Lopez was so strung out on drugs that he thought every car was the police or the drug man coming to get him.

His aunt asked him if he wanted to go to Victory Outreach.

In his mind, Lopez thought he could go there and hide out, sober up and then flee to Mexico to escape the law that he knew would be in pursuit.

'I could see their tears'

When Lopez walked inside Victory Outreach, he overheard people talking to each other saying, "Thank God you made it before they got to you."

"They weren't talking to me," he said, "but, yet, they were."

After 90 days, the church asked him to commit to the program. But Lopez said he needed "to leave to take care of something first." His intentions were to leave briefly to kill a witness to his crime -- thinking that would set him free -- and then go back to the church.

But the street-savvy leaders knew if he left, he'd never return. So he chose to stay.

Lopez was transferred to the residential home by bus -- the same bus he'd scoffed at on the streets years before.

"Everyone on the bus was clapping, praising Jesus and singing," he said.

When he arrived at the home he was given food and a dorm-style bed. He didn't quite know what to think about the people there "who looked like the streets, but didn't sound like the streets" with their Jesus-loves-you and God's-got-a-plan talk, he said.

During a chapel service, he intently watched the other streetwise men's eyes and their needle scarred arms as they placed their hands on an altar and offered their lives to God.

"I could see their tears," he said.

Something was happening to them at the altar and he felt he needed that change and purpose in his life. But he became enraged when some of the men began falling to the ground, appearing to be having seizures.

"I got really angry," he said. "I thought this is just a hoax. They were playing me."

When it was Lopez's turn, he placed his hands on the altar and asked God to change his life -- and nothing happened.

"I'm tired," he said louder. "I can't do this anymore."

Then he heard a voice say, "Let me have it, son."

"I had been abandoned by my mom and dad, and when I heard that voice call me son, I felt it go to the depths of my soul," Lopez said.

As the feeling left his body, all of his bitterness and anger went with it, he said.

He found himself lying peacefully on the floor.

"I felt clean and empty," he said. "It was life-changing."

When he left the program to visit his son, he was arrested and he gave the officers a fictitious name. But he decided to come clean to the police about who he was.

Lopez went to prison for nearly seven years on a 23-year sentence for attempted murder, among other charges.

He felt like a different person in prison and began preaching the gospel. Two years prior to being released, he began telling people that he intended to open Victory Home to help addicts and gang members restore their lives through God.

'Trying to reach out to those who were struggling'

After his release, Lopez continued his ministry but found it difficult to fit in with denominational churches in the area.

"I was not playing around. It was not a social club. I was trying to reach out to those who were struggling," he said. "I wanted to knock on the drug dealer's house and put my foot in the door at 9 o'clock at night."

Lopez opened Victory Home in Twin Falls, including Victory Ranch in Hansen.

The nonprofit sold a building in Twin Falls and used some of the money to purchase the Helping Hands food pantry, an apartment building next to it and a small house behind the building.

"I heard that Burley's drug traffic was worse than Twin Falls or Jerome," Lopez said about the need for a facility in Mini-Cassia.

Lopez brought a staff of 12 to the Burley location.

Helping Hands has room for 16 residents in dormitory-style bedrooms. The program is open to men and women and none of the staff is paid.

"As the pastor and janitor, I get $1,600 a month and no housing," Lopez said.

The transitional living building has four apartments and residents pay $350 a month.

The center's work program raises money for the program, but the center relies heavily on donations and volunteers to keep the doors open. The organization also hopes to expand to Pocatello, but the pandemic has made future plans uncertain.

The center provides free services for participants and is in need of ongoing financial support, materials and supplies for various remodeling projects along with people in the community who are willing to volunteer.

"We've gone through $80,000 in savings during COVID," said Lopez. "And we don't want to be a burden to any community."


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