Reflection: Dilemmas in Working with Gang Members in El Salvador
WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic
September 4, 2018
by Kenton Moody
His arm was carefully covered with a long sleeve and discreetly tucked inside his shirt. It was obvious he felt embarrassed, but I had to ask. My question led to an ethical and spiritual dilemma for me as a pastor.
Angel was an active member of the local 18th Street gang when I first met him. I was visiting homes in an impoverished area near the church I pastor. The shanties are built side-by-side along what was the old rail line to Ahuachapan and are constructed of rusty tin, plastic, and crude wooden supports cut from the trees in the nearby coffee farms. I stopped to talk, but it was obvious that Angel and his companions were not too comfortable with me. It was the first of many encounters.
All that year, I came into the community each day picking up children for school in my pickup. Angel and the other gang members were always there along the narrow street and would nod at me or occasionally ask me for a quarter or a dollar to buy a Coke. They never showed disrespect or any indication they didn’t want me in their community. When we began to build small 10’x20’ wooden homes for different families, often times they would help us unload the trucks and Angel even helped me cut the lumber from time to time, eager to learn to use the skill saw.
It was the day after Christmas when I heard about it. Angel and his older brother Vladimir had gotten caught near the opposing gang territory and were attacked brutally. Vladimir’s face and teeth were completely broken and they cut his head severely with a machete. Angel didn’t fare much better. They cut off his left hand and severed the thumb on his right. I knew Angel and Vladimir probably would’ve done the same thing to the opposing gang members if they had come into their territory, but the crude violence still impacted me.
In El Salvador, at Christmas, hardly anyone shows up at the hospital, not even the doctors…only the poor. I felt like I had to go…I was their “pastor.” Not once had they ever come to my church although I had invited them numerous times. They never showed an interest in my message or really in me, but I was the only pastor that would ever claim them.
Angel and Vladimir live about a kilometer from the church and we have a number of congregants from their area. I requested prayer for them in our service. As I was transporting people back to their neighborhoods that night after service, one of the women told me, “It is really hard for me to pray for these young men because they killed my grandfather last year.” It was only one of the many crimes attributed to them.
When I showed up at the hospital that afternoon, they were surprised. Vladimir’s girlfriend was there and it was obvious I was interrupting their time as I talked and prayed for him. Angel was in another ward, filled with beds almost side by side. I could tell that Angel had been crying. He seemed to really appreciate my visit and told me, “Gracias.”
I made it back to the hospital a couple of times before they were let out. When I knocked on the flimsy door of their rusty tin house with a dirt floor, I could tell that my making an effort to see them in the hospital opened the door to their home. I asked Angel to see what the gang members had done. He slowly withdrew his arm from where it was tucked inside of his shirt and shyly pulled up the sleeve. His hand had been severed by a machete at the wrist. The doctors had simply closed the skin over the stump that was left and sewed it up. His other hand was disfigured where the opposing gang members had also sliced off the thumb.
Tears rolled down Angel’s face. He knew his life was changed forever. To get a job in El Salvador is extremely difficult, but being a gang member and now without a hand, it was nearly impossible. He was also basically useless to the very gang he served. With only four fingers, he could hardly even use a cell phone to serve as a guardian of his community. Even his girlfriend had lost interest in him.
With those tears in his eyes, Angel asked me if I knew of anyone who could help him with a prosthetic hand. “I just want to be normal again,” he told me. A good friend of mine learned how to make prosthetic limbs while in prison and has a ministry to the poor in the capital. Everything within me wanted to offer that opportunity to Angel, but I couldn’t do it.
How could I give a hand to someone who would use it to extort or harm someone? I would be facilitating his life in the gang rather than helping him. Instead, I made a deal with Angel. If he would give me his personal guarantee that he wanted to change direction and lifestyle, I would help him. I offered him an opportunity in our Center of Hope to learn English or computer technology and/or help him find a job in a local business. If he would be consistent, I would do my best to get him a hand. I knew I was offering bait and debated internally if that was ethical or not. Angel was appreciative and slowly said yes.
The old adage, however, “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” held true. The environment around Angel, the other gang members in and around his home, his family, his upbringing, all held him back. He decided not to accept the emotional and spiritual help that I offered in return for the prosthetic hand.
I stay in touch with Angel and was in his home last week to share the devotional for his sister’s 18th birthday, but Angel has come to terms with his loss and decided he couldn’t make the commitment and therefore I couldn’t commit either.
Many times I’ve struggled in prayer wondering if I’m doing the right thing and the “what if’s”. We did build a wooden home for Angel and his family. His mother came to know Christ and we saw a real transformation in her life. One of his young nieces attends our church and school. Both of her gang member parents are in prison, but you can see God shining through her. Angel continues to be a candidate for what God can and will do. Nothing is impossible for God, not even the MS-13 or 18th Street gang members.