International Women's Media Foundation

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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