In El Salvador, Becoming An Evangelical Is A Way Out Of A Gang

Jul 2, 2018
Originally published on July 2, 2018 5:57 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have a glimpse of life in El Salvador. Conditions there have become a factor in the news here in the United States. Some Salvadorans seeking asylum at the U.S. border say they are fleeing gang violence at home. In El Salvador's gang-dominated neighborhoods, boys and men say they have three choices. They can migrate. They can join a gang. Or they can make a surprising third choice. Emily Green reports from San Salvador.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: In San Salvador, people drive around with their car windows closed to avoid petty theft. But when you enter the neighborhoods controlled by gangs, you keep your window open to show your face - that way the gangs know you're not an enemy. In the center of one such neighborhood, known as La Dina, sits a tiny Baptist church on a narrow street. In this incredibly violent neighborhood, it is the one place gangs leave alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah.

GREEN: Inside, around ten former gang members, easily identifiable by their head-to-toe tattoos, sing along and clap fervently. The church's newest member is 24-year-old Jose Rolando Arevalo. He has a tattoo on his chin that confirms his allegiance to the gang Barrio 18, which he joined when he was 14 after his brother was assassinated by a rival gang. Like many gang members, he embraced evangelical Christianity when a pastor approached him in prison.

JOSE ROLANDO AREVALO: (Speaking in Spanish).

GREEN: The pastor started talking to him about his life in the gang - about everything that happened with his family. And then the pastor started talking about God and how the evangelical church would embrace him. Arevalo says his heart was touched. In the church, a pastor talks about the gangs - the pandillas, as they are known in El Salvador.

NELSON MOZ: (Speaking in Spanish).

GREEN: He says "in prison, God leaves one naked and opens the door for new beginnings." He says "God is always faithful even when others aren't." He prays for gang members to leave behind a life of violence and join the church. Pastor Nelson Moz has led this church for 21 years.

NELSON MOZ: (Through interpreter). The God we preach is one of opportunity. Our message is that they should understand there is a life outside the gang. They can make it with the help of God.

GREEN: It is this emphasis on personal transformation that makes gang members embrace the evangelical church, says Jose Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University who has studied the relationship between the two. Around half of all gang members identify with the evangelical church, according to his research, and attend services around 15 times a month. In contrast, just 17 percent of gang members identify with the Catholic church. And those that do are less religious, he says.

JOSE MIGUEL CRUZ: They feel that evangelicals are more welcoming despite their criminal past. And they feel embraced in this conversion by the church.

GREEN: Cruz says becoming a devoted member of the evangelical church at a young age is the only way many adolescents are able to avoid being roped into a gang. And it's also the only way for them to get out of a gang if they're in it.

CRUZ: You join the gang. You join the evangelical church. Or you leave El Salvador, and you migrate. So those are sort of the three options that young people in these communities controlled by criminal groups have.

GREEN: Carlos Martinez is a journalist with the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro and covers gangs. He says the gangs also feel protected by the evangelical churches to some extent. The churches were founded in the very poor communities that gangs control.

CARLOS MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

GREEN: Back at the church, Preacher Moz calls on the members to stand and to pray. One former gang member squints his eyes shut, clenches his fists and prays fervently under his breath.

CARLOS MONTANO: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: Carlos Montano was a gang member for 22 years. Tattoos cover his entire face. The number 18 is tattooed 18 times on his body - a reference to his allegiance to the Barrio 18 gang. During his time in the gang, he says he kidnapped and robbed people and raped women. Then he was sentenced to prison for those crimes. And thanks to an evangelical pastor there, he found God. That was nine months ago. Now, he says, God knows about his past and has pardoned him.

MONTANO: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: He's a Christian, he says, and the gang respects that. But he says, if he fails as a Christian, they will kill him. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green, in San Salvador.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.