My community of Santa Catarina Pinula in Guatemala City has been greatly affected by the spread of urban neighbourhoods. This growth has clearly brought with it a degree of development, but we have also seen young gang members migrating into the area and an increase in violence, poverty and inequality.
Called to the dark places
Seven years ago, the Guatemalan Bible Society invited me to work as a chaplain in a maximum-security detention centre. I will never forget the afternoon of my first contact with the young gang members. There were 90 children kept in little more than cages, all giving me challenging and intimidating looks. The walls were covered in the gang’s graffiti. The environment was tense, dark and oppressive.
For me, that first meeting with the gang members was an incredible mix of feelings and sensations. I took the Bible with me, ready to share the gospel with this group of gang members and criminals. But what a surprise! Their penetrating looks completely changed my previous perceptions of evangelism. I remembered the advice of a friend: don’t talk, listen.
Ignoring the instructions given to me as chaplain, I therefore kept quiet for almost two years. I simply listened to the life stories of the kids, and every week it was I, the pastor, the theologian, who came away feeling blessed and challenged. The threatening looks of those first days gradually transformed into friendly looks from people I now knew as human beings.
In the seminary, I learnt Greek and Hebrew (although languages are not my strength); with these young gang members I learnt the language of the streets. I learnt that you don’t wear shoes but ‘kicks’; I don’t have a wife but a ‘girl’; things aren’t good, they are ‘wicked’; I don’t carry money but ‘dough’; and friends are ‘homies’ or ‘brothers’. By listening instead of talking, I earned the right to speak into their lives and to present Christ’s love and compassion.
As I got to know the young people better, I was also able to help them in practical ways. I advocated to the prison authorities for more humane treatment of the boys, and now sometimes we are allowed to organise a special activity for them outside of their cells, such as a football game. I have also been able to arrange visits from their families from time to time.
Prevention is better than a cure
I wanted to reach out to our community to help prevent young people getting involved in crime. I felt God said that the response should be ‘Bread, education, Bible.’ Yes, in that order. These children did not identify with a God who seemed remote and indifferent. I felt we needed to meet their basic needs before we could talk of God’s love: this love had to be brought to life through deeds.
These children did not identify with a God who seemed remote and indifferent.
We established two outreach centres and a college in our community, and are currently providing education to more than 800 children and teenagers. There are also 325 children and young people on our programmes for preventing violence and self-destructive behaviour. We engage in constant outreach work in the community.
I have always believed in making strategic alliances, as long as they do not contradict our principles. To ensure the outreach centres are sustainable, we have made alliances with the local government, the community, other organisations, other churches and anyone who wants to bring about positive change.
The education and practical help that our children receive is not a malicious transaction designed to make them believe in God. On the contrary, it is the representation of God’s love.
Edition 104 of Footsteps magazine explores the theme of prisons. It includes practical tips for getting involved in prison ministry and caring for ex-offenders.