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But the Ruizes believe that leaving is not a part of Mary's plan for them. Says Leticia Ruiz: "She has said, 'I came to this place in particular because you cannot run away from the world. You have to help the world to change. This is where I need you.'"

So Peggy left her more comfortable milieu. "I didn't know this side of life existed," she says. "My idea of giving to charity was giving money through my paycheck to the United Way. I always gave my clothes to Goodwill, but I never knew the people who would be wearing them. Now I am the thrift-shop queen!"

She has become accustomed to houses without central heating and the tradition of moviegoing on Sunday afternoons in the summer, seeing as how theatres are air-conditioned. It's all right with her that, instead of going to the lake, she may spend Saturdays for the rest of her life helping to feed homeless people who show up for a handout. She deals somehow with the fact that Armando devotes so much of his time to the needs of street kids that she sometimes feels neglected. (She says, "The biggest change is that I have had to learn not to be so selfish.") She is no longer set atwitter by the frequent sounds of gunshots, "unless they are very close by, and then my concern is whether anybody needs help."

She does not give the impression as she speaks that these changes represent much sacrifice. In fact, she relishes the new life that is bleaching out the stains on her soul and teaching her not to sweat the small stuff. "Evil sneaks into our lives in so many ways," she says, explaining that in her former life she did such things as have cocktails. "The more I think about it, the more I realize I was a terrible, terrible person." Now she is someone with a different perspective that has set her free. "My car was stolen about a month ago, from right in front of my house," she says, "and I said to Armando, 'I am mysteriously unaffected by this.'"

Which isn't to say that she feels things less, unless you're talking about unimportant things.

The thing that does affect her is the prayer meetings.

Every Saturday, everyone who lives at the compound attends and does his part. Leticia will perhaps man the table at the rear of the yard, where prints of a painting of the Blessed Mother, painted by Reyes in a folk-art style, are sold for $10 apiece. Armando will perhaps lead the rosary while Peggy stands by the front gate and helps out of a long Cadillac a local pediatrician who frequently attends with his two profoundly retarded sons--grown men now--one of whom must be lifted into a wheelchair.

If you are not a believer, if you don't expect to see the Mother of God's eyes change and become real in the painting that hangs just behind the shrine of Jesus, as many claim to have seen it, it is difficult at first to understand what about these meetings so stirs the blood of the Ruizes and other visitors.

It is not the impassioned, mystical atmosphere that one usually equates with tales of miracles. No one in the audience shouts Hallelujah or collapses in an ecstatic fit. (Reyes says someone did the latter once, but the worshiper quickly regained all faculties upon hearing Reyes say that he was going to call 911 for help.) No one bursts into tongues.

Even during the moments of the rosary when Estela is seeing and talking to Mary, you wouldn't know unless you knew. Sequestered indoors with a few worshipers while the larger prayer group carries on outside, able to hear the crowd's Hail Marys through a speaker system that pipes every syllable into the house, Estela stops praying for a few minutes and her gaze fixates a little. That is all; in a few minutes the vision is over.

Far from being frenzied demonstrations of belief, the Ruiz prayer meetings are occasions when common sense and the supernatural somehow combine, as when a man swooshed up to Estela after prayers were over and declared he felt the evening had cured him of cancer. "How can I know that I'm cured? Do you think the Lord will send me a sign?" he inquired of his prophetess.

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Deborah Laake