A week ago Sunday I returned from four intense days in Guatemala City working with “Estrategia de Transformacion,” an initiative that supports, encourages and trains a group of ex-gang members and committed pastors engaged in transformational work with active gang members. I also visited a former Tierra Nueva colleague who now works in a project to exhume, identify and photograph the remains of indigenous people massacred by the military in the 1980s. The trip was a home-coming of sorts as Guatemala was the place God called me to work with the poor and where I’d called Gracie asking her to marry me during some of the worst violence of a civil war in 1980.
I hadn’t been to Guatemala in 20 years, but there I was, this time to go into two prisons housing some of the most violent gang members and to train chaplains and ministry workers who currently serve the poorest of the poor. What a privilege! But my memory of the terror from the violence was also rekindled. Torture, savage killings and beheading commonplace in 1980-81, fed by US policy, are still happening, now among rival gangs of young men and the police—and the fatherless young gang members are being scapegoated for nearly everything, including the violence they have inherited.
Joel Van Dyke leads this gang ministry and hosted us. Joel is a street-wise Christian Reformed pastor/missionary and Latin American Director for the Center for Transforming Mission who’s been in Guatemala 4-5 years. He’s full of vision and passion to develop the chaplaincy ministry and many other initiatives after pastoring an inner-city church in Philadelphia for some 15 years. The first day Joel and a Guatemalan chaplain took Chris, Angel David (whose been with Tierra Nueva Honduras for 25 years) and me into the gang wing of a big prison guarded by machine-gun toting soldiers.
The guards opened the doors and left us off in the midst of 180 young men, many with tattoos covering their faces and upper bodies. Unlike our local jail, marijuana smoke, cell phone calls, a prostitute and dispute over a woman made it hard to get people’s attention for the Bible study. But we were able to get away with what we do best in Skagit County Jail. Chris played and sang over the men after I asked permission to lay hands on each one and pray for God’s Presence to heal, fill and bless them. I could sense that each hardened guy softened as I prayed, but the men had to be careful not to express outwardly that they were being positively affected.
Churches are viewed as rival gangs, and often act that way—pulling people away from their most functional family of “homies” into something often marked by legalism and exclusivity. The gangs are even more legalistic and brutal. Two of the chaplains who visit another prison shared with us that five inmates who accepted Christ and expressed a desire to change were found dead the next day, executed by fellow gang members, a warning to others not to leave the flock. Yet a number of guys told me privately afterward that they appreciated the Bible study on receiving Jesus as their personal body guard—a particular reading I do of Psalm 23 and Luke 15. I was disturbed to learn from Joel, who just finished his doctoral thesis on the gangs, that as many as 80% of the gangsters are from evangelical homes. Legalism begets legalism unless it is directly confronted and healed by Jesus’ grace and love.
That afternoon we got a tour of a forensic laboratory that deeply moved me. There we saw the bones of men, women and children exhumed from mass graves in the highlands. We were shown skulls and entire skeletons that were respectfully laid out on tables so the technicians could determine, age, identity and cause of death. I was shown bullet holes in many of the skulls, including that of a 16 year old girl. We saw storage rooms full of cardboard boxes with the already inspected remains of hundreds of yet unclaimed people labeled by name, site, village and region. My former colleague told us the lab has processed 5,000 of the 200,000+ ”disappeared” by the military during the 1980s. What is the link between the violence of the civil war and the gangs? I continue to wonder.
The next day we went to Central America’s most infamous prison to visit the gang member inmates of perhaps the most notorious gang in the Western Hemisphere. They’re arch-enemies of the gang we’d visited the day before and had proved it three years before by killing and beheading 45 of their members.
Once again the guards let us in with 110 or so inmates. We hang out and talk with a number of men, some of whom had first joined the gang while living in Los Angeles before they did prison time in the US and were deported. I later heard from Joel that many of the gang members had lost their fathers to the death squads or the war in the 1980s. Adrift and afraid, many migrated as young teens to the USA, often ending up selling drugs and joining a gang.
A few days before leaving for Guatemala I had a dream of a heavily-tattooed gangster with a hole in his right side. I saw someone fitting that description, and ended up needing to ask him where I could find a bathroom. I followed him into the dark recesses of the prison, and after using the toilet he humbly asked me if I’d like to see his cell. There in the cell this man who’d been shot in his lower abdomen, sentenced to over 120 years, one of the top chiefs of this gang invited me to sit down on a plastic chair and hear about his belief in God. I offered him a CD of contemplative flute music for worship and a copy of my book Reading the Bible with the Damned, which he warmly accepted. We prayed together for God’s peace and presence in his life and he was very grateful.
From there we went straight into Chris singing over a group of 40 or so inmates, while I once again was granted permission to lay hands and pray over each one. I then led a reflection on the call of Matthew in what turned out to be a breakthrough Bible study. I described how Matthew was a tax-collector—a member of a notorious class of people that nearly everyone hated.
“Who might fit the description of tax-collectors today?” I asked. Gangs in Guatemala force businesses in their territories to pay “protection taxes” [from themselves] and taxi drivers to pay “circulation taxes”- and the men smiled and looked at each other, acknowledging that they fit the description.
“So what was Matthew doing when Jesus called him?” I ask. The men look surprised when they note that he wasn’t following any rules, seeking God or doing anything religious, but practicing his despised trade when Jesus showed up on the street and chose him.
“So let’s see if Jesus made Matthew leave his gang to be a Christian,” I suggest, and people look closely at the next verse. There Jesus is eating at Matthew’s house with other tax-collectors and sinners and the disciples.
“So who followed whom?” I ask, excited to see people’s reaction. The men could see the Jesus had apparently followed gangster Matthew into his barrio and joined his homies for a meal.
“So what do you think you guys, would you let Jesus join your gang?” I ask, looking directly to the two chiefs of the gang? They both had big smiles as we looked at Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees’ distain.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” I ask them if they are at all offended to think of themselves as sick—and they don’t seem to be at all. I’ve got their attention and Jesus’ final word to the religious insiders hits these guys like a spray of spiritual bullets from a drive by:
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I knew from experience that they were letting Jesus inside and hearing his call to follow. Last Thursday back in our local jail two groups of ten inmates all welcomed Jesus into their cells and into their lives after talking through this same Scripture with them.
But that day we still had to leave the prison. On our way out I wonder about the warden just as Joel suggests we thank him. We step into his office and shake hands. I acknowledge that he has a very complicated job needing lots of wisdom and ask if we can pray for him and bless him. “Bueno” he says, and I ask if we can lay hands on him. He accepts but just as we begin praying he suddenly pulls out his hand gun, takes out the clip and empties his pockets of other clips. “This is more proper!” he says, placing his gun and ammunition atop his file cabinet. He receives our blessing and we offer to pray for healing for an injury related to a machete fight that left his arm, shoulder and chest with shooting pain.
“All the pain is gone,” he tells us with a grin after we pray. We leave amazed by the truly special unique Spirit who disarms and loves both gangsters and warden.
That night and the next day we ministered to the seven chaplains and some 50 ministry workers, teaching on forgiveness and praying for God’s Spirit to refresh and renew people. The Holy Spirit came in beautiful ways, with lots of crying and people all wanting prayer. Angel David was delighted to see how God visibly touched these spiritually hungry men and women as we prayed together over each one.
I am sure there’s a need for more and more of God’s healing, transforming presence—brought right into the heart of the places of greatest wounding and pain. I’m also certain that honestly facing the truth of Guatemala’s violent past and of America’s participation is critical for forgiveness to lead to true reconciliation and peace.
Please pray for Joel Van Dyke, my former TN colleague, and the gang chaplains and other ministry workers in Guatemala—for strength, empowerment, wisdom and protection. Remember too the gang members both in the prisons and on the streets—that Jesus’ kindness would penetrate and transform hard hearts. Pray too for Angel David, who returned to minister in Honduras, excited to recruit younger people into active ministry to the poor and Chris who is now back in Burlington pasturing his own flock of local gang members. Please keep Gracie and I in your prayers as we leave next week to visit our son Isaac in Argentina.