Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Certain places in the world have problems that seem to be intractable. South Sudan. North Korea. And El Salvador.

The latter is the homicide capital of the world. Zillions of dollars have been poured into it. The U.S. government has declared war on its criminal elements. And nothing’s changed.

One institution, however, is dealing with the gangs. I was fascinated to see Molly O’Toole’s piece in The New Republic on how evangelical churches have the only solution that’s working.

Who would have thunk it?

At a small jail outside San Salvador, Brother David Borja lifted his sunglasses to talk a guard into letting us inside. The cell, originally intended for temporary holding, smelled of sweat and urine. In the center was a roughly ten-by-ten-foot cage, and inside it, a tangle of limbs and hammocks.

At the sight of Borja, a street preacher from the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, bare-chested, tattooed young men began crawling down from the hammocks and pulling on T-shirts.

As Borja started to pray, the men crossed themselves and bowed their heads. A few cried silently; others testified, “Truth.” … As the guard latched the thick steel behind us, we could still hear the men’s applause, and pleas for the pastor to pray for them to be saved.

Prisons are obviously fertile missionary grounds here.

Founded in 1977, the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, known as “Taber,” is now believed to be El Salvador’s largest church. Taber claims a congregation of more than 40,000, with millions of converts and more than 500 churches across the country. The megachurch also owns a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers, extending its reach. In 1950, El Salvador was around 99 percent Catholic, but Protestantism has shot up since the 1970s, with 40 percent of adults today identifying as Protestant.

That makes Taber one of the most influential institutions in a country otherwise dominated by gangs.

The switch-over of Latin and Central Americans from Catholicism to Protestantism is still one of the more under-covered stories of modern religion reporting. It is a fait accompli one never thought would happen as recently as the 1970s. Here we read about an evangelical church that's taken on the gangs that rule the country.

According to experts, one of the gangs’ golden rules is that members can never leave with their lives. But in the past few years, there’s been a fascinating development: Gang bosses are increasingly granting those under their command desistance—a status change from “active” to “calmado,” meaning “calmed down”—if they convert to evangelicalism. At El Salvador’s San Francisco Gotera prison, about 1,000 ex-gang members have become evangelicals, nearly all of the overcrowded prison’s occupants.

The phenomenon can also be seen outside, at smaller Pentecostal parishes such as Ebenezer, whose ministry to gang members, The Final Trumpet, is known for speaking in tongues. Newfound-religious who stray from the righteous path, however—whether by drinking, doing drugs, beating their wives or girlfriends, or not attending church—can face deadly consequences from their former compatriots.

It’s an open, urgent question whether evangelical megachurches like Taber can use their influence to bring peace to El Salvador . . .

Actually, according to the link provided in the above paragraph, Ebenezer is simply a Pentecostal church and is known for a lot more than tongues-speaking. I am guessing the reporter is not too familiar with the doctrines of these various congregations.

You can’t hope to rehabilitate this horribly troubled country without dealing with the gangs and this fascinating piece tells how a 49-year-old pastor is having a major effect who inherited a church from his father.

“This is a powerful book,” said Edgar López Bertrand Jr., raising a Bible at Taber’s massive headquarters in San Salvador.

López Bertrand, his office full of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and Harley-Davidson paraphernalia, has formally headed the megachurch since late 2017, when his father, Edgar López Bertrand Sr., died. Just after his takeover, El Salvador’s police chief announced that homicides had dropped 25 percent from 2016. Both the gangs and government take credit for the continued decrease in the national homicide rate, but it’s also vindicating for pastors like López Bertrand, better known as Toby Jr., who have put their credibility on the line by supporting gang rehabilitation…

With tattoos, piercings, boots and cargo pants, Toby Jr. publicly butted heads with his more conservative father, making no secret of his impatience for him to step aside and turn Taber’s empire over to a younger, more forward-thinking leader…as Toby Sr. was recovering from a stroke, his rising celebrity pastor son stunned Salvadorans by hosting incarcerated leaders from MS-13 and Barrio 18 before 7,000 congregants at Taber’s main church, as well as a national-TV audience. Under high security but without handcuffs, they sat next to each other in slacks and shiny shoes.

Naturally, some have questioned whether the evangelicals’ motives are altogether pure.

Salvadoran and American officials believe gangs are using the Evangelical church as a front to grow their political capital. The reverse could also be true. “The cynical view is they [evangelicals] are getting involved in conversion of gang members in order to not only get political power, but also economic power,” (researcher Jose Miguel) Cruz said.

That could be. But at least the churches are out there on the streets.

Other articles such as this New York Times piece have been written about gang members getting religion and trying to leave their old lives. NPR did much the same story last summer. That, along with the New Republic story, was funded by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

This Christian Science Monitor story, which ran last year, also covered the same ground.

In July, the Guardian ran this piece funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting on how gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 only allow their members to leave if they join evangelical churches.

The video atop this blog post is also from the Pulitzer Center. One of the interviewees is a former MS-13 member who has become a pastor and who enters neighborhoods where even government workers refuse to tread.

It’s obviously not a perfect system and not everything goes according to plan, but it’s better than the alternative, no? And these church folks are working with unemployed men just out of prison; a throw-away population in the eyes. It’s fascinating that no other religious group –- Catholics, Mormons, Muslims –- is doing anything similar.

It is also admirable that journalists are going to these murder capitals to do these stories. It’s not a place where I’d accept an assignment. What will be the future of this evangelical movement among ex-prisoners. I hope reporters somewhere keep on this story so we can find out.

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