gangs

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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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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Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Recently the saddest story ran in the Los Angeles Times about a 10-year-old boy who was slaughtered by his mother’s boyfriend. The point was that the boyfriend suspected that the child was gay and so tortured Anthony to death.

I’m not going to argue whether or not the child was gay or whether a kid can know such a thing at that age, as there’s plenty of talk about this issue in the comment field.

What drew my attention was something near the end of the article. Notice the fourth paragraph:

Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said.

Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body.

Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys” but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when…

Nichols said that his department’s caseworkers documented years ago that Leiva was allegedly a member of the MS-13 criminal gang, but that information was not classified by the workers as a safety threat necessitating Anthony’s removal from the home, and the department never moved to have him permanently removed.

What I didn’t include in the article was a description of how Anthony and his siblings were tortured. Because that is part and parcel of how MS-13 operates and when I looked further into them, I discovered something else about them.

MS-13 is heavily into Satanism. Somehow I’d never realized that a surprising amount of outlets have written about this, especially since late last year. 

For those of you who, like me, didn't know this, the Washington Post probably has the best history of this group and its satanic roots:

Some of the gang’s founders were devil-worshiping metal heads, according to experts. And although the connection has waned over the past 30 years, it can still be seen in MS-13’s use of satanic nicknames, tattoos and other imagery. The gang’s devil horns hand sign is known as “la garra,” a Spanish reference to Satan’s claws. And some MS-13 members have told investigators that they committed their crimes at the behest of “la bestia,” or the Beast.

“The beast … wanted a soul,” an MS-13 member nicknamed Diabolical said after killing a 15-year-old girl who’d disrespected his satanic shrine, prosecutors told a Houston courtroom earlier this year.


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Does the priest in this Los Angeles Times story have a reason for his season?

Does the priest in this Los Angeles Times story have a reason for his season?

Once again, we’re reading one of those Los Angeles Times’ “great reads” stories from A1, in this case a long feature about an unusual individual who has some involvement with religion.

Such is this story on a Los Angeles priest who has mentored gang members for three decades. It sounds like a thankless job for someone with a deep calling to be in a difficult place. Here's the interesting question: It's a story about a priest, but is there a faith element in here somewhere?

We start here:

In a small mortuary in East Los Angeles, a mother wept over the silver casket holding her son. Behind the pews, photos of Roger Soriano showed a young man throwing up gang signs with friends, a tattoo reading "J13" for Jardin 13 etched into his scalp.
He had been killed at 21, shot dead as he allegedly tried to rob a shopkeeper.
Behind the pulpit on that July day, the priest betrayed no strain in conjuring up virtues from the short arc of a life that had ended so messily.
"I knew Roger when he was a little kid and later on when he was a teenager, and you could always see the goodness. Always," Father Greg Boyle said. "Where Roger is right now, he has the same perspective that God has. The same God that is too busy loving us to be disappointed."
For decades now, young men who died by the gun have gotten their final benediction from Boyle, who began as a fresh-faced, thirtysomething priest in an era when the City of Angels churned out gang carnage on an industrial scale, inspiring movies such as "Boyz n the Hood" and "Colors" and making "drive-by" part of the country's lexicon.

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Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

As you would imagine, I am receiving quite a few emails from friends and readers who are asking variations on this question: What is going on in Baltimore?

A few personal comments: First of all, I have very little experience covering politics and the police beat, the two subjects that, for better and for worse, are currently at the heart of the coverage of this story. Second, I live on the Baltimore beltway south of downtown (in a blue-collar, interracial suburb with roots back to Colonial times) and I am not an expert on urban life in this complex city. I do know that -- as some journalists are noting -- there is a special poignancy to seeing smoke and flames rising from neighborhoods that still haven't recovered from the 1968 riots after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like many locals, I spent hours yesterday watching the news and trying to keep up with the social-media hooks in this story. As of this morning, talk radio is full -- as it was yesterday -- of reports of another wave of "purge" notices calling for more violence this afternoon. True?

Of course, I have been watching and listening as a religion-beat specialist and there has been much to note. Another question people keep asking me is why embattled Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't call for a curfew LAST night. Well, the locals can tell you that Baltimore is a city that doesn't have massive resources and they were stretched to the total limit last night. There weren't enough police and firefighters to go around, on a night with about 140 car fires and major action in neighborhoods in the west and east. Could a curfew have been enforced?

So who was there to respond, until the National Guard and back-up firefighters rolled in from outside of town? If you watched CNN, Fox and other networks last night, you know the answer to that -- clergy and activists from black churches, that's who.

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God, gang graffiti and gunfire in L.A.

A heartwrenching story appears on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times (see a television report here) on a worshiper killed outside a church:

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