On the streets of La Dina, El Salvador, extortion, robbery and murder are a way of life. The area has been decimated by gang culture, with MS-13 and Bario 18 tearing the streets apart. Simply put, if you are a young man growing up in La Dina, your life expectancy is going to be devastatingly low.
As such, the rate of incarceration is stratospheric. But while it may be staggeringly easy to get swept up in the gang culture at a young age, it is notoriously difficult to leave, even after coming out of prison.
Indeed, for many of these men, there is only one way to cut free from the snares of the deathly culture — and this freedom and refuge is found in an unlikely place: church.
Eben-ezer is an inner-city church that doubles up as a rehabilitation center for ex-gang members — it is also run by a former criminal, Will Gomez. Pastor Will spent years embroiled in gang activity and was a contracted hitman, executing targets for a cash fee. Now, he has committed his life to personally leading young men out from the dark paths of drug dealing and murder and towards a new hope in relationship with Jesus.
“I’m a walking testimony, I believe, of God’s power to change people,” Gomez told the BBC, admitting that he took “countless lives” when he was an active gang member.
But while he is no longer wielding a firearm, Gomez is still involved in dangerous work. Often times, the gangs are irritated that their recruits head straight for the church instead of getting back out on the streets and hustling. At all times, the work of Eben-ezer is being closely monitored.
Gomez, however, has developed a way of dealing with the criminals effectively.
“We have traced the line.. a line of respect. This is God’s Kingdom — don’t mess with God,” he tells the gangs who threaten to disrupt the rehabilitation work. “We don’t get involved in your business, don’t get involved in ours.”
Pastor Gomez added that “society believes that a person like me or the rest of these men don’t deserve a second chance,” but this ministry, he said, is proving them wrong.
“Carlos” is one gang member who just got out of jail and headed straight for the church. The rehabilitation involves daily Bible study, church services and prayer. “I’m fighting,” Carlos explained. “I feel free. I am a Christian, but there are temptations.”
“I’m not a gangster anymore,” he added. “God believes that a gangster can change, but the people around here don’t.. they’re not Christian.”
As you would expect, not everyone makes it. Tragically, most who drop out of the program end up back in jail or dead.
Gomez, however, sees it very simply — you either choose the gangster lifestyle and reject Jesus, or you accept the Lord and leave all that nonsense behind.
“Look, if you’re a Christian, behave one, live like one, act like one, walk like one — you won’t have any problems whatsoever,” he explained. “But if you’re not sure of what you are, or who you are, you’ve gotta be careful. Because you don’t play with the Devil, and you don’t play with God. Either you are or you’re not.. simple as that.”
“There’s a way out,” Gomez declared, “and the name of it is Jesus.”