El Salvador

Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Criminal gangs and their rampages through society are a cancer in Central and Latin America and very few governments have a clue as to how to change the situation.

Prisons are beyond overcrowded, the economies are poor and many people are unemployed, which ramps up gang membership. And yet some nervy evangelical pastors in the hinterlands of Brazil have come up with an idea of how to use social media to pull people out of gangs.

That brings me back to this Washington Post piece, which I’ve been meaning to get around to for some while, since came out a month ago. It’s quite a read and worth a flashback.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — As the sound of gunshots grew closer, Janderson Viera knew that the rival gang that had taken over his neighborhood was coming for him.

Running to his bedroom, he called the only lifeline he had left: the Rev. Arnaldo Barros.

“I want to convert,” he said.

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

For anyone wondering why evangelical Christianity has exploded in Brazil, this story explains why (click here for a classic blast of Pew Forum data on this).

For those of you needing a review of the past few decades, this story summarizes the enormous growth of evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostals, in Brazil. Most seem to be former Catholics.

Back to the Post:

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

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

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.

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Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

I’ve often criticized the Los Angeles Times’ religion coverage –- or lack thereof -– but it was clear this past week in their stories about Sunday’s canonization of Saint Oscar Romero that the paper knows how to marshall resources for the religion beat when it wants to.

It helps that there is an Oscar Romero Square in LA, not to mention a Romero art installation in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown plus an estimated population of more than 400,000 Salvadorans in southern California. Maybe it helps that Romero is a hero to many Catholics on the cultural left.

Romero was killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass; his murder planned by right-wing death squads and directed by ex-Salvadoran Army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. I was only two years out of college when he died. However, thanks to generous coverage of the man in Sojourners magazine (which I subscribed to at the time), I knew who Romero was.

Running an Associated Press account as the main story, the Times sent a Spanish-speaking reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, to Rome to provide “color” stories (as we call it in the industry) of the locals who traveled to Rome for the ceremony. It helped that Bermudez was born in El Salvador.

In life, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was persecuted, shot in the heart by a single bullet while he celebrated Mass.

In death, his legacy was politicized, calumniated — all but silenced.

So for many Sunday, it was extraordinary to see Pope Francis at last declare Romero a saint in St. Peter’s Square.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled Vatican City’s ancient plaza for the ceremony . . . Romero’s followers traveled from El Salvador, Los Angeles, Washington; from distant lands like Sweden, Norway and Australia.

On this grand stage, they savored every detail: the bright blue sky filled with cotton-like clouds; the Gregorian chants ringing over a sea of 70,000 people; the red-ostrich-feathered helmets of the Vatican’s fancy Swiss guards; the bloodstained rope belt worn by Romero at his time of death, now tied around the Pope’s waist to honor his memory.

Romero! Romero! Your pueblo is with you, Romero!

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Too-perfect storyline: El Salvador criminal gangs gain respect of evangelical churches, let members go

Too-perfect storyline: El Salvador criminal gangs gain respect of evangelical churches, let members go

Here's a fascinating story I missed during the Fourth of July week: NPR reports on an unlikely "respect" between criminal gangs in El Salvador and the nation's evangelical churches.

I really enjoyed the piece and felt like the writer did some excellent reporting.

After reading it all, though, I found myself wondering — and there's a chance this is just me being overly skeptical — whether the narrative is a bit too perfect. 

In other words, life is complicated, and the NPR storyline is simple. Perhaps too simple.

I'll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, let's set the scene with the opening paragraphs:

In El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, people drive around with their car windows closed to avoid petty theft. But when they enter neighborhoods controlled by gangs, they keep their car windows open, to show their faces. That way the gangs know they're not an enemy.

In the center of one such neighborhood, known as La Dina, a tiny Baptist church sits on a narrow street. In a neighborhood notorious for violence, it is the one place gangs leave alone.

The church underscores the growing ties between gangs in El Salvador and evangelical Christianity. In a country where Roman Catholicism has traditionally predominated, evangelicalism is growing and has gained the respect and endorsement of gangs — a rare point of agreement even for rival groups like Barrio 18 and MS-13, the country's two biggest gangs.

It has also left many boys and men growing up in gang-controlled areas with stark choices: According to academic research and interviews with pastors and former gang members, their only alternative to joining a gang — or getting out of one — is to become a devoted member of an evangelical church.

Later, NPR quotes an expert who has studied the relationship between the gangs and the churches — and he's certainly a strong source:

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