Gangs, heroin, and near-death experiences: Pastor’s life story goes Hollywood
At the age of 12, he joined a Brooklyn gang and stabbed a rival with a switchblade. At 14, he tried heroin for the first time. By 16, he was heavily addicted. And now, at the age of 71, pastor Victor Torres has had his life’s story turned into a feature-length film.
“Victor,” which had its red carpet premiere last week at the Byrd Theatre, focuses on the New Life Outreach International pastor’s troubled teenage years. Through fights, through heroin and through getting clean with religion, the film shows how a street-wise kid narrowly missed becoming a statistic.
Sitting inside the Turner Road church he founded with his wife Carmen, Torres still wears a black leather jacket and vividly remembers his checkered past. There was the time, for instance, when a rival gang nearly threw him off a roof. They were stopped by Torres’ mother.
“They came up there to kill me,” Torres says. “That sort of thing happened all the time.”
At 14, four friends pressured him into trying heroin.
“One of them tied my arm, and the next thing I knew, I was taking a shot of heroin,” Torres recalls.
It wasn’t long before he started losing friends to the drug.
“One of them was found on a rooftop, and we didn’t know until the snow melted and the stench hit the block,” he says. “Another friend of mine was stabbed 21 times outside my house. The heroin thing was driving me to do crimes – mugging people, pulling them into alleyways.”
Torres entered the hospital 14 times to beat his addiction but always returned to the needle. It was around this time that Torres’ mother joined a church, but Torres didn’t want to have any part of it. She eventually persuaded him to stay at a recovery home, leaving out the fact that it was operated by her church. The first person he saw upon entering was an enemy from a rival gang.
“He had found Christ, and his life had been changed completely,” Torres says. “At that point, I decided to stay in the program.”
He became religious while staying at the home and was eventually asked to start a similar center in Boston. He then attended Bible school in California, where he met his wife and co-pastor Carmen. The two traveled the world, preaching in 40 different countries.
In 1971, Torres was invited to speak at the West End Assembly of God in Richmond, and he’s been here ever since. He and his wife focused entirely on outreach, initially. Living mainly in Chesterfield, his family always took in those in need, including prostitutes and drug addicts.
“Us kids grew up there with all these guys and girls coming in off the street, and we used to give up our beds,” recalls Rosalinda Rivera
, Torres’ daughter and co-director of the church’s New Life for Youth program. “We would sleep on the floor.”
In 1977, the Torreses purchased an 118-acre farm in Spotsylvania County to treat dozens of young men at a time.
“The qualification for the program is they have to want help,” Torres says. “There’s no bars. It’s voluntary. Everyone is there because they want to be there.”
In 1979, they founded their community church. Originally located in Richmond, the church purchased land on Turner Road 12 years ago and erected its current facility. They also opened two shelters for women, Mercy House in Richmond and Mercy Moms House in Chesterfield. The church now has 1,000 congregants and operates the farm, the Mercy homes, a thrift store, car wash, food pantry and a residential program in the county for addiction.
“We have the doctor and the professional person and the engineer sitting with someone that is getting help,” Torres explains.
Torres eventually published his memoir, “Son of Evil Street,” which served as the basis for the film. On a tiny budget of $2 million, “Victor” was shot almost entirely at the studios for 20th Century Fox.
“It’s unheard of for a $2 million movie to be shot in the studios at Fox,” says Rivera, who served as associate producer on the film. They were able to shoot at the studios because a number of the cast and crew had either dealt with addiction themselves or knew others who had, Rivera says. “They came in and said, ‘We want to be a part of this film, and whatever it takes to meet that budget, we’re going to make it happen.’”
Now Rivera is working on distribution for the film, which should hit American screens next fall. They also hope to screen the film at every jail, prison and high school in the country.
“I thought it was awesome,” says Louella Dalton, who went to the movie premiere and attends Torres’ church. “It was very emotional. I thought the actor and actress portraying Victor and Victor’s mother were excellent. It was a packed house, which I was exhilarated about.”
In the wake of the recent rise in fatal heroin overdoses, Rivera says parents need to talk to their children about drugs and stresses that New Life operates a residential program in Chesterfield.
“Parents are not aware of the reality that more kids die from an overdose than they do from car accidents,” Rivera says. “We don’t want to admit there’s a problem, but there is a problem when we’re burying people.”
Through addiction, gangs, and recovery, Torres hopes that the story of his life can be an inspiration to others.
“If there’s a heartbeat message that we want to get out to families, it’s that there is hope,” Torres says. “Even though children are falling victim to this tragedy and this wave of drug addiction – especially heroin – they don’t have to accept it; they don’t have to give up.”