Farm worker Ivan Mendoza is riding his bicycle down a busy central Fresno street carrying a bag of recyclables so he can “buy some milk or something” when he comes upon a sign, “Need prayer?” hanging off the side of a pop-up tent.
Pulling his bike over Friday morning, he’s greeted by Virginia La Salle and Linda Crowder under a tarp canopy in a vacant dirt lot. The women put their arms around his shoulders and they huddle together for an intimate prayer at the intersection of Belmont and Van Ness avenues, just off Highway 180.
“It gives me hope for positive things in the future,” Mendoza says of the prayer he receives. “Me just living a sober life – never going backwards and always going forwards – and doing everything for my daughter that I can.”
Mendoza is one of hundreds who have received prayers from the women since La Salle, an ordained pastor, felt called in the spring to start leading prayers on Fresno’s streets. Seeing the great need and response, she started a campaign calling for 100 prayer tents around Fresno this weekend. People have pledged to set up around 30 so far.
This is what Jesus would be doing. He’s not going to be sitting in a pew in church every Sunday.
La Salle moved to Clovis in 2015 to help care for her ailing father, who died in November. She’s led ministries in other cities, including one in Florida, that began with washing the feet of homeless people. One man sobbed as she removed layer after layer of dirt from his blackened feet.
“I didn’t know that as I washed the feet that God would show up and soften their hearts so you could pray with them,” she remembered.
The homeless started taking leadership roles in the ministry to help give back to the community.
When you treat them with respect and honor and value, everything changes.
Virginia La Salle
“That’s when I learned,” La Salle says, “if you find and treat people with value, they will rise up every time. … When you treat them with respect and honor and value, everything changes.”
In Fresno, La Salle says people from all walks of life stop by for prayers, and that a majority are “well-off” professionals, not the homeless. “The level of desperation continues to catch me off guard.” She’s prayed with gang members, with people suffering from mental illness, and with police officers.
La Salle and Crowder usually lead prayers on the streets Sunday and Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They’ll be at new locations this Saturday and Sunday: Crowder at Divisadero Street and Blackstone Avenue, and La Salle at Clovis Avenue and 10th Street in Clovis. Crowder describes the street ministry as “my church now.”
“This is what Jesus would be doing,” Crowder says. “He’s not going to be sitting in a pew in church every Sunday.”
La Salle says she’s frustrated that more Christians don’t venture out from behind the walls of their churches to help people, but says she’s seeing a change.
“There’s something that God is going to do in this city that’s going to change the identity of Fresno,” La Salle says. “It’s not just people like me and Linda on the streets. There are a bunch of us doing stuff now. We’re connecting with a lot of ministries now.”
Among the people La Salle and Crowder prayed with on Friday was Chasity Barajas, who pulled her car over to “see if this is real.”
The 25-year-old talked with the women about how her stepfather has cancer, and how the father of her young children abused her and is now in prison.
La Salle asked her to let of go of “guilt, shame, anxiety and fear” and to repeat, “Father, thank you, that you have not given up on me. That you are for me.”
I’m speechless right now. I feel real good inside and God is real.
“My hands are lifting up,” Barajas says during the prayer. “Why does that happen?”
“The lightness,” La Salle answers with a smile. “He takes the burden off.”
“I felt like something ugly off my shoulders … I feel better now,” Barajas says, “I feel better.”