God and the gangs
While this is not a new story, NPR did a nice job reporting yesterday on the complicated relationship between the gangs of El Salvador and evangelical churches in the country. Gang members may identify themselves with the churches, and religious conversion can be one of the only ways to withdraw from life in the gangs.
From the NPR report:
During the service, a pastor talks about the gangs, known in El Salvador as pandillas. He tells the congregation that in prison, God leaves one naked and opens the doors for new beginnings. He says God is always faithful, even when others aren't. He prays for gang members to leave behind a life of violence and join the church.
"The God we preach is one of opportunity," another pastor, the Rev. Nelson Moz, who has led Eben-ezer for 21 years, says after the service. "Our message is that [the gang members] should understand there is a life outside of the gang. That they can make it, with the help of God."
It is this emphasis on personal transformation that makes El Salvador's gang members embrace evangelicalism, says José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University's Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, who has studied the relationship between the two.
In Cruz's research, more than half of the Salvadoran gang members he surveyed identify as evangelicals and attend church services an average of 15 times a month. In contrast, just 17 percent of gang members identify as Catholic.For a fuller description of religion and other social factors involved in gang membership, you should definitely read the research led by Cruz which resulted in a report titled The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador.