By Michael Ashcraft —
While National Geographic calls MS-13 “America’s deadliest gang” and Trump calls them “animals,” Christian revival has broken out among the youths who tattoo their faces, and hundreds are turning to Jesus.
“Every day in this country, dozens of men are leaving the rank and file of the gang and looking for the right path, the arms of the Lord,” says Pastor William Arias, who is a converted ex-MS. He’s pastored for six years in San Salvador, El Salvador, in a neighborhood so taken over by the gang that public service employees are afraid to enter.
Ironically the MS — and fierce rivals 18th St gang — got their start in Los Angeles, according to The Guardian documentary video. During El Salvador’s guerrilla war, thousands headed to the U.S. fleeing the carnage in the 1980s. Many settled in the poorest neighborhoods of L.A., where they found themselves caught between African American and Mexican gangs.
To stand up for themselves, they formed the MS — or Mara Salvatrucha — and became fierce rivals. Crackdowns on gangs in L.A. largely tamed warfare between Mexican Americans and African Americans, but the Salvadorans got deported.
When they returned to their native land, they brought the gang with them.
That’s the story of Wilfredo Gomez, of 18. After being deported to El Salvador, he was arrested for armed robbery in El Salvador.
It was in jail that he found God.
“We are not your typical Christians. We have done a lot of bad things,” Wilfredo says.
When he finished his sentence, he had no family, no friends and nowhere to go.
So he was surprised when the guards told him that “friends” had come to pick him up when he was released. Who could those “friends” be? he wondered.
As he peeked out of the prison, he spied them timidly. They were church members, and they took him in and fed him and gave him a place to live while he transitioned to freedom and could stand on his own two feet.
“We heard what God is doing in there and we’re here to help you. I was like, ‘Whoa, I never had a family. I never had nobody waiting for me when I got out of prison,’ he says. “The way they received me inspired me and gave me strength to continue on the right path.”
Today, Wilfredo is a pastor with the Eben-Ezer church and runs a halfway house for ex-gang members. The youth get a mat on the floor in a common room and three meals a day. They have strict rules against drugs and crime. Wilfredo runs a bread bakery to give them work and pay for the house.
When Wilfredo got saved, he estimated there were 90 or so ex-gang members that had become Christians in the nation. Today, he says there are 1,500.
A lot of the revival is taking place in prison. There are many reasons why gang members come to Christ in prison. They are freed from the temptation of drugs. They are miserable facing the consequences of their sin. They are treated better than active gang members by guards.
“Something is happening in the jails,” Wilfredo says. “There’s a whole prison of ex gang members worshiping God in prison. Something’s really happening.”
William Arias, of the MS gang, promised God that if he got out alive after an attempt against his life, he would give himself to the Lord’s service.
“I got out in the year 2000,” he says. “That day I gave myself to the Lord.”
While his dad was getting drunk or drugged up and his mother was working to provide for the family, William at age 7 took to the streets. He tried marijuana and became addicted to sniffing glue. At age 11, he joined the MS gang.
“I became a member so that people would be afraid of me and have respect for me,” he says. He was inducted by one of the original MS founders, who was deported from L.A.
“The gang has three outcomes: one is jail, the other is hospital and the other is death,” William says. “The only way out is the path of God. Gang members know there’s no other way out.”
At a recent service in his church, two youth accepted Jesus and Pastor William gloated that the devil wouldn’t be able to recruit them for the gang.
They got in the gangs because of the discontent born of a dysfunctional family. They got into God because that’s where they found the love they were searching for.
“I used to hate MS. I used to think about destroying them, dropping a bomb on them, like Hiroshima,” says Pastor Wilfredo. “But now all I want is to preach to them and tell them Jesus loves them. I dreamed one day of having an area, of building a house where I could house both of them, both MS and 18 together worshiping the Lord, without any restriction, without any fear in their hearts, to build their faith.”
Michael Ashcraft was a missionary in Guatemala for almost 16 years and got first-hand experience with the MS-13. He started the Liceo Bilingüe La Puerta Christian school. All photos are from The Guardian video.