Gangs

Love, No Matter What

FULL DISCLOSURE: I teared up nearly every time I read from this book.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2010
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White Flag Warriors at the Border: Recognizing Humanity on All Sides of the Immigration Debate

About a year ago, when we were writing our song "White Flag Warrior," my friend (and fellow frontman) Stephen and I had quite a conversation. We talked about Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac" and about Kierkegaard's multiple interpretations of Genesis 22, about Malcolm X challenging MLK Jr.

Human Freight

Like hearing an unresolved chord, seeing Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film Sin Nombre demands a response. Whether this stems from the characters’ outpouring of good or the capacity for evil you witness in them is hard to tell.

Sin Nombre, Fukunaga’s feature debut—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January—takes viewers on the brutal freight train passage to the U.S. border from Teguci­galpa, Honduras, and Chiapas, Mexi­co. Men with mismatched shoes and dry hands, women wearing shirts two sizes too small, and confused children scramble for dusty packs and prepare to jump aboard their ride to “the American dream.” Most will face a spectrum of unpleasant outcomes—loss of limbs, dehydration, banditos, rape, separation from the group, deportation by Mexican immigration authorities, death. Only the resilient and lucky will arrive at the border unscarred.

Willy (played by Edgar Flores), a tattooed thug in the notoriously violent Central American gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, hopes to escape a street life of destitution. Accompanied by an innocent sidekick, Sayra (played by Paulina Gaitan), he learns the cost of betrayal and sacrifice. “A psychic once told me,” Sayra whispers to Willy, “‘you’ll make it to the USA—not in God’s hands, but in the hands of the devil.’” Sayra indeed makes compromises on the route north, including dangerous exchanges with MS-13.

This script mirrors the story of hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants making the treacherous journey to the U.S., a country where one of five U.S. children is living in an immigrant family and the abbreviations DHS, ICE, and INS have permanently entered our nation’s lexicon.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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Real Repentance?

Robert Brenneman’s article (“The Cross and the Crossfire,” April 2009) leaves this reader incredulous. The story of “Julio” appears to be offered as an example of the miraculous possibilities of human restoration—Julio is described as having murdered “more than 40” people prior to his contact with an evangelical gang ministry, but now he’s “an itinerant evangelist.” So, did Julio experience the kind of conversion that leads to actual repentance and the acceptance of responsibility, or just the “easy-believing” kind that wipes serial murders cleanly off the slate while providing a nifty career transition? Without some clarification, the gang ministries come across as naive and enabling. I imagine Julio’s new gig as an evangelist provides little solace to the children of his victims.

Jonathan Richard, Denver, Colorado

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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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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The Cross and the Crossfire

I am a sociologist. I’m also an Anabaptist. Two years ago, I began work on a dissertation motivated by a relatively straightforward research question: Why are so many members of the transnational gangs of Central America reportedly converting to evangelical Christianity?

The identity transformations required of a gang member who rejects the gang in favor of a teetotaling, tobacco-shunning, domestically oriented evangelical congregation seemed the perfect place to engage my sociological curiosity about religious conversion. But my motives were also personal. As an Anabaptist who’d spent several years working in peace education in Central America, I wondered if the conversionist religion of the conservative, largely Pentecostal evangelicals of Central America can have any this-worldly consequences for the peace so desperately needed in the region.

A wave of criminal violence has bedeviled Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador since the end of the civil wars. They are still among the most violent countries in the hemisphere. All of them have murder rates that approach or exceed 50 homicides a year per 100,000 inhabitants—more than seven times the murder rate in the United States. Many of these murders are carried out by members of the transnational gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara Dieciocho (M-18).

These gangs emerged in the Latino barrios of East Los Angeles as immigrant youth struggled to find jobs, housing, and a distinctive identity, often with an “illegal” status that made them outlaws in their own communities. With the crackdown on immigration in California in the 1990s, thousands of youth—especially Salvadorans who came to the U.S. with their parents as refugees from

El Salvador’s civil war—were rounded up and deported to their “home” country. Between 1994 and 1997, more than 150,000 Central Americans were forcefully deported from the U.S.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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