El Salvador: Remember Those In Prison
The door shut behind us and I heard the key lock it. The guards stayed outside. Surrounding us were about 150 young men dressed only in baggy shorts, with tattoos covering much of their bodies and shaved heads. I sensed tension in the air and their eyes asked, “Why are you here and what do you want?”
Pushing through the crowd came a familiar face. Hector— a known gang member from the neighborhood across the highway from our church— was accused of a violent crime. We had helped build his family’s wooden home the previous year.
“Hermano (brother) Kenton, what are you doing here?” Hector asked. I told him we had come to see him. “This is my pastor,” Hector proudly told everyone.
The tension dissipated and a number of the young men extended their hands to welcome us, but no one was more surprised than I. Hector had never once come to a church service or any activity for that matter. How could I be his pastor? The realization hit me that I was his pastor not because he came to where we were, but because I went to where he was.
A SURPRISING RESPECT
That was my introduction to El Espino (The Thorn) youth detention center. The word on the street was that if you weren’t a gang member before you were sent there, you would be by the time you got out. Imprisoned youth spent their time tattooing their bodies. Drugs were prevalent, and the gang ruled. Yet a number of young men in El Espino had indicated they wanted to leave the gang lifestyle. We went to the prison to start the faith-based Living Free program, which provides 12 steps to liberation from controlling habits.
For several years I avoided prison ministry, justifying it by saying that our ministry was helping children and youth, building wooden homes, and administering our Hosanna School. But one day, reading Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself,” I couldn’t ignore the need any longer, especially since the country of El Salvador is noted for having one of the worst prison systems in the world.
These prisons in El Salvador, which are terribly overcrowded, are representative of the difficult societal conditions. El Salvador is a beautiful country, with several active volcanos, some of the best surfing in the world, and wonderful, hard-working people. El Salvador also has the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the world due to gang violence. Every means has been used to stop the growth and influence of the gangs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars, targeted assassinations by paramilitary groups, police brutality, and political treaties with the gangs, all virtually to no avail.
The MS-13 and 18th Street Barrio gang influence is felt in almost every community in the nation. “See, hear, and shut up” is their advice to the communities and is graffiti-written all over the country. However, gangs show a great deal of respect towards the Evangelical church. The only two institutions in most local communities are the gangs and the local church. A study done in El Salvador by the University of Southern Florida and funded by U.S. tax dollars, stated the only way out of the gang life for these young men and women is through an Evangelical church, preferably Pentecostal. If one of their members decides to be a “100 percent Christian”, the gangs will allow it and monitor them to make sure they are following through.
FROM ANKLE BRACELETS TO CROWNS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
We decided to take advantage of that loophole. One of our church leaders began visiting El Espino youth detention center, in response to the arrest of some gang members (including Hector), who lived near our church. We had used the help of those young men when constructing some of the more than 400 homes we had built in the area. When the prison director saw the results of our visits and the Living Free Program, he asked us if we could do more so they young men didn’t become repeat offenders. We didn’t realize exactly how much more God was going to require of us.
In addition to helping detainees reconstruct a small soccer field inside the detention center, we brought volunteers to teach classes in carpentry, baking, and basic agriculture. After winning the youths’ confidence, our team began teaching the Living Free 12-step program to those who indicated a desire to change and leave the gang lifestyle.
In November 2019, 22 of the youth were bussed to the church I pastor, La Puerta Abierta (the Open Door Church), to participate in a graduation ceremony. This was the first time such a thing had ever been done in the history of the youth detention program.
Upon arriving at the church, under tight security by heavily armed police and military personnel, their handcuffs and ankle bracelets were taken off. They put on graduation gowns and hats, and they received their diplomas of completion for the course. To those who participated from the Salvadoran government, this event signified success in the rehabilitation process. To us, this represented the removal of spiritual shackles and the donning of new robes and crowns of righteousness.
“. . . with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).