Tattoos and Bright Lights

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.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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