The Central American country of El Salvador has become so dangerous that in the capital, San Salvador, people do not drive with their windows down out of fear of being robbed.
But this closed-window policy changes the second one enters a neighborhood that is controlled by the region’s notorious gangs. In these parts, the norm is for people to drive through with the windows down, showing their faces in order to prove that they are no threat to the community, or to clarify that they are not “the enemy.”
Right smack dab in the middle of one of these gang-ruled neighborhoods called La Dina, there stands a beacon on a hill: a small Baptist church that sits amongst the chaos, untouched by the violence that overtakes the streets.
El Salvador is a historically Roman Catholic country, but in recent years, evangelicalism has been on the rise, even among the gang members themselves.
Even more surprising is the unification evangelical Christianity is bringing to gangs like Barrio 18 and MS-13, both rival groups that are known for their ruthless tactics.
— The Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) July 5, 2018
In areas controlled by these gangs, young boys and men are frequently forced to join to ensure their own safety. But due to the recent growth in evangelicalism, there has been an interestingly surprising shift in the culture of young men, according to NPR. In recent years, the church has emerged as a welcomed alternative to gang life.
Despite its small congregation, Eben-ezer Baptist church boasts around 10 former gang members who have abandoned a life of crime and violence to worship Jesus with all their heart.
The former gang members are easy to identify in such a little church, as they are covered in tattoos from head to toe.
The newest member of Eben-ezer, 24-year-old José Rolando Arévalo, is one of such congregants. A tattoo on his chin gives away his former membership to the Barrio 18 gang.
Arévalo joined Barrio 18 when he was just 14. His membership was spurred after his brother was killed by a rival gang, and he did what he knew, which was to join the gang himself.
Eventually, he ended up in jail, where he was approached by a Christian pastor.
“He started talking to me about my life. About everything that had happened, in the gang and with my family,” Arévalo told NPR.
Arévalo explained that the pastor told him of a religion that would accept him and embrace him regardless of what he had done. He had never before understood religion as a means of redemption.
The pastor that met with Arévalo told him that he served a God who would not only forgive him but forget his past. Arévalo said that his heart was touched after meeting with the pastor. And though he has only been out of prison for a couple of weeks, he is already in the church, worshipping alongside his brothers in Christ.
At the Eben-ezer Church, the gangs that plague El Salvador are a topic of regular discussion. Rev. Nelson Moz has devoted much of his preaching to sharing how God makes it possible for members to leave their lives of violence and receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
“The God we preach is one of opportunity,” Rev. Moz, who has led Eben-ezer for 21 years, said following a service. “Our message is that [the gang members] should understand there is a life outside of the gang. That they can make it, with the help of God.”
According to José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, the evangelical emphasis on the possibility for personal transformation is what draws so many of these men to the Ebern-ezer church.
Cruz has studied the relationship between ex-gang members in El-Salvador for years. Through his research, he has concluded that more than half of the gang members he surveyed identify as evangelicals. More than 50 percent of Salvadoran gang members say that they go to church around 15 times each month.
Only about 17 percent of gang members say that they are Catholic, which might come as a surprise considering the traditional Roman Catholic background in the country.
“They feel the evangelicals are more welcoming despite their criminal past. And they feel embraced in these conversions by the [evangelical] church,” Cruz stated.
Evangelicalism in Latin American countries has been on the rise for years, and now 40 percent identify as evangelical, while half identify as Roman Catholic.
Cruz also added that this is partially due to the welcoming culture of the evangelical church. Instead of joining a gang, young boys can also get involved with the evangelical church.
It also works as a tool for gang-members to leave their gangs, as it is accepted by gang leaders if someone leaves to become an active evangelical. This is groundbreaking because there is nothing else that would make “leaving a gang” acceptable.
“You join the gang. You join [the] evangelical church. Or you leave El Salvador and you migrate,” Cruz said. “So those are sort of the three options that young people in these communities controlled by criminal groups have.”
Carlos Martínez, a journalist for El Faro, a Salvadorian news outlet, told NPR that gangs feel protected by the churches in their communities.
“They are the community. And they have learned to live alongside the gang members, who they have known since they were kids. Because at the end of the day, it’s their sons, husbands, boyfriends, parents and nephews,” he said.
Some join the church out of fear of other gangs. Carlos Montano is one of those people.
Montano was an active gang member of Barrio 18 for 22 years before he joined the evangelical church. His body is covered 18 times with the number 18, in reference to his gang.
After years of kidnapping, robbing and raping women, Montano was sentenced to prison, where to his surprise, he discovered God.
Nine months ago, while in prison, he, like many other gang members, was approached by a pastor. Montano was moved by God’s grace and unconditional love and realized he needed that forgiveness.
Now he is out of prison, and routinely attending church. He told NPR that he feared for his life when he left prison, but getting plugged into the church has saved him both on earth, and eternally.
When a gang member leaves the gang for the evangelical church, it’s not exactly a go-free card. Bizarrely enough, gang leaders actively check in on the ex-members to make sure that they are attending services regularly, and not participating in any of their past behaviors. They check to make sure they’re not drinking, smoking or partaking in any form of criminal behavior. As long as these men remain true to their newfound faith, they will be viewed as non-threats to gangs.
“I’m a Christian. And the gang respects that,” Montano said. “But if I fail as a Christian, they will kill me.”