The Apostle Paul wrote most of the New Testament. Yet, the first time we are introduced to Paul in Acts 7, he’s overseeing the execution of Stephen, Christianity’s first recorded martyr. While reading Danny Gold’s story in Longreads about the “Pastor’s” ministry among the notorious gangs of El Salvador, I thought about how the Apostle Paul’s murderous past didn’t prevent the Holy Spirit from using him for God’s glory and the spread of Christ’s Kingdom.
Not much information is given about the man called the “Pastor,” but the world that writer Danny Gold enters with him is vividly described in the article titled “The Redemption of MS-13.” And in that world of violence, death, and hopelessness, the reader is introduced to another pastor: William Arias, an ex-gang member.
Pastor Arias’ story as a drug-addicted ex-gang member who spent time in prison only to find salvation through repentance of sin and faith in Jesus is the stuff of Christian movies in the States, but Pastor Arias is more concerned about the souls of gang members than he is in cashing in on his incredible past. Describing Pastor Arias, Gold writes:
The letters ‘M’ and ‘S’ are tattooed on [Arias’] forehead. Two teardrops are under his left eye, and there’s a spider web behind his right ear. Beneath his collared shirt and blazer, across his prodigious stomach, are a host of other MS-13 tattoos including a fairly large hand doing the devil’s horn fingers that has become the gang’s signature hand sign.
Having been “jumped into” MS-13 in 1990 when he was 11 years old, only getting out 15 years later, Pastor Arias understands the psychology of gang membership like few other humans. The control that MS-13 and its rival gangs exert over the communities of El Salvador is frightening. The article explains that in a country with a population of just over 6 million, there are over 60,000 gang members and another 500,00+ that are under the control of the gangs.
Having escaped that violent control, Pastor Arias now spends his time ministering to communities suffering under gang oppression and sharing the gospel with gang members, calling them to repent and believe in Jesus. Interestingly, the article points out that salvation is the only way out for gang members:
As Pastor Arias explains to us, “It’s the only way out of the gang since the gang has only three exits: One is prison, two is a hospital, and three is death. The only way out alive is through God, and the gangs know perfectly that there isn’t another way.”
Of course, once out, converted ex-gang members must live out their faith to be taken seriously and avoid the consequences suffered by those who attempt to leave the gangs. Gold writes that if a former gang member “is seen out hitting on women at a bar or drinking or doing drugs, anything that may give cause to suspect the commitment to living a pure lifestyle, it can set them up for a death sentence.”
The article is fascinating, encouraging, and long. However, don’t allow the length keep you from reading it. Gold’s well-written reporting about how the gospel of Jesus Christ is transforming members of MS-13 will cause you to praise God for how He is keeping his promise to create a new nation out of all tribes and tongues.