The Common Good
April 2009

Tattoos and Bright Lights

by Chris Hoke | April 2009

Inside Guatemala's gang prisons.

Sitting on a concrete floor in the middle of the prison gang sector’s hallway, I am surrounded by some of Guatemala’s most infamous young criminals. They are squatting along the walls and leaning out of their cell doors to listen. Their faces, heads, necks, shoulders, arms, and bodies are covered in tattoos. Mayan symbols, American terms in gang lettering, and haunting images of horror and death. Much of the ink covers the distorted tissue of stab and bullet wounds.

The Spanish New Testament is folded back in my hand to the end of Acts 7, and we’re about to see if there’s a connection between the story written in these pages and the ones written on their bodies and in their memories.

As a young American gang chaplain, I’ve been brought here by a team of ex-gang members who are now lay chaplains. Some are tattooed themselves, and they go back into the several gang prisons in and around Guatemala City with the gospel, risking their lives to build relationships of love and trust with the widely hated and feared pandilleros—members of street gangs.

We start the Bible study with a scene familiar to them: a street execution. While Stephen is being stoned by a mob, a young man stands behind the killers, watching.

“How many of you,” I ask, “have seen bloodshed—maybe murder—like this with your own eyes?” They smile at each other, as if I were joking. “Before you were in a gang,” I add, “when you were little.” Some tell how their families were dragged out of their homes by the police during the civil war in the ’80s. Many witnessed their families shot, execution-style, by the anticommunist regime.

The day before, in a forensic anthropology lab, I saw warehoused cardboard boxes full of bones exhumed from the mass graves still being uncovered. Some of my listeners in prison fled north to the United States as children after seeing young women raped, men decapitated, or homes burned by their government.

As we read on, we see Saul exhibit marked aggression: dragging families out of their houses, enacting the same violence he earlier saw up-close. “Breathing threats and murder,” now he’s feared by all, as infamous as a pandillero.

“So what does God do with this violent young man, an enemy of the church?” I ask. A nervous silence. “Does he oppose Saul with an iron fist?” I am referring to the government’s mano dura, gang-eradication campaigns led by the national militia.

We read on while marijuana smoke and TV noise hover faintly in the air. One skinny guy points out that Jesus knocks Saul over—the use of force they’ve come to expect from authorities.

“Yes, Jesus stops him,” I say, “but not with a weapon. It’s an overwhelming light.”

I tell them about the first time I did this study with felons in the Skagit County Jail in Washington state. When I had the inmates back home place their hands over their eyes and invite Jesus to heal their wounded vision and memories, I expected them to see the person of Jesus. Instead, many reported seeing a bright light. One large man even had a garish boyhood memory washed out—like acid on a filmstrip. Weeks later, he told me he experiences a sudden warmth and joy each time he tries to recall the nightmarish scene.

“God stops violent men, it seems, by touching their eyes, where the violence first entered them,” I almost have to shout among the growing crowd. “He remembers the hidden trauma locked inside violent people—and places.”

As I prayed for these ink-covered Guatemalan peers of mine, dozens timidly placed a hand over their own eyes, wanting the light. Sadly, I had to leave before I could talk privately with the guarded inmates about what might be happening inside of them.

I am seeing God raise up a new generation of radical apostles from the ranks and prison rows of gangs—in Central America and all the way up the West Coast. Like Paul, they bear witness to God’s power to the outsiders, starting cells of faith in the underground world, outside the temple walls, where today’s dying churches fear to go. Jesus is not only healing the darkest parts of their memories; he is simultaneously bringing to light the dark and violent history that first tangled our nations together.

I find myself wondering: Will the established church welcome or oppose them? And is the American church ready to face what Jesus wants to unearth?

Chris Hoke worked with gangs as a chaplain in the Skagit County Jail and on the streets of northwest Washington state as part of Tierra Nueva (www.tierra-nueva.org) when this article appeared.

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