Saturday, October 31, 2015

New Ministry for the DIllards: Saving El Salvador from Gangs- Part One

Jill and Derick Dillard have headed back down to El Salvador and mentioned in passing some of their prayer requests:

Please keep the following prayer needs in mind as you go before the Father:
• That the political instability and violence of the region would be such that we could make the transition effectively.
• National and local elections – that God would put authorities in place who would honor the Word of God and His people
• Prison and gang ministry. Many of the men in Central America are in custody for gang involvement, leaving the gangs themselves as the primary influence of many children, especially young boys, who, sadly, tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. By God’s grace and the prayers and fasting of his people, this deadly cycle can be broken and this land healed.
I'm going to assume that the first bullet point is a poor grammatical construction.  I suspect the Dillards want us to pray that the country has little or no political instability or violence rather than descends into chaos.  (My husband isn't as optimistic as I am on that point....)
The bullet point about "Prison and Gang Ministry" gave me chills.  Do the Dillards understand what they are getting into?  No.  They can't.  Presumably, they have the laughably naive beliefs espoused by Clarissa on her blog which essentially run that Good Christians (TM) will suddenly realize that gangs are evil, magically reject gangs, and everyone will be happy forever after.

It's none so simple. 
First big idea: The USA's history of nation building in Latin America is horrifying.
In the 1980's, El Salvador was on the verge of a civil war.  The US government was terrified that communism would take hold in Latin America. The United States supported the Salvadoran government who eventually destroyed the opposition while destroying the country.  In a country of 5.3 million people, 80,000 were killed and over 500,000 were refugees by 1990.  (One of the murdered people is somewhat known in the USA: Archbishop Oscar Romero.)  Some refugees tried to get into the USA as refugees; most were denied legal entry.  Without a legal way to enter the country, many crossed over as illegal immigrants.  While in the USA, some of the disenfranchised young men who had seen horrific violence in their home country became gang members in established US gangs like the 18th Street Gang (or Barrio-18). Others joined M-13 which was a gang created to protect Salvadorans from other American gangs.  These gang members were caught for a variety of crimes and deported.   In doing so, the USA managed to export two extremely violent gangs (Barrio-18 and M-13) while allowing the government to massacre civilians.
Second big idea: Nothing about gang life is simple.
I haven't talked about my teaching experiences much on my blog.  I have a lot of positive memories, but I also have bad memories.  I started teaching when I was about 25. My first teaching job involved working with students who were actively involved in gangs.  Here are some things I learned quickly:
  • You are exposed to gangs your entire life.  More than once, I saw a cutely arranged picture of younger siblings of students dressed up in play clothes.  The boys were dressed in the gang's color - like their fathers and brothers - and throwing gang signs.
  • If you are male and live in an area with gangs, you have two choices: join a gang and have protection from other gangs OR be a potential victim of all the gangs.
  • Schools were safe zones because the gangs decided that the publicity of school violence was bad for business - but teenagers don't always obey gang rules.
  • Getting out of a gang is hard - but not for the reasons most people assume.  
    • See, your entire family are probably members of the same gang.  If a relative is hurt by another gang, you will be expected to enforce retribution.  If you don't, your entire family is at risk.  
    • For a lot of my students, the gang WAS their family.  They didn't have anything like an intact family; hell, most of them had been in and out of foster-care and various relatives homes for years.  Being in a gang gave them a sense of purpose, belonging and safety that was missing from everywhere else in the world.
What does this look like in Western Michigan?  Here are a few stories with names and identifying details changed:
  • Darius was a young teenager who liked to talk trash - to everyone.  Seriously, the kid never stopped picking at other students.  In the classroom, he was pretty easy to keep quiet - he wasn't a defiant kid by a long shot - but he'd start jabbering away within seconds of the end of class.  Darius was in my classroom one day when another teen who I'd never seen walked in the room.  The other teen grabs Darius and starts beating the crap out of him.  The other teen had several inches of height and probably 30 pounds on Darius.  Another student, Marcus, jumps up and starts fighting the other teenager which gives Darius a chance to move to safety.  Marcus and the other teen were pretty evenly matched and exchange a few body blows before my principal who was in the nearby room comes in and separates the two of them. (The entire fight happened in less time than it took me to write that paragraph.  Thankfully, no one was armed.)  Long convoluted story short: "Other teen" was snuck into the building by a fellow gang member to beat up Darius because Darius was picking on "other teen's" girlfriend.  Darius would have gotten the crap beat out of him if Marcus hadn't intervened.  Why did Marcus intervene?  Marcus and Darius were in the same gang.
  • Jack was a young man I met at that same school a few years later.  He was a slightly older student who had a little girl in OH he doted on.  He's show me new pictures of her frequently.  Jack was also set up to join the military when he graduated.  Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were at their peak, I was very worried.  One day, I asked Jack if he was aware of how dangerous Iraq and Afghanistan were.  Jack looked at me and said, "Miss, I know they are both dangerous and that I could die there.  I also know that if I go back to Ohio I will be dead within two years because I'll get dragged back into the gangs.  The way I see it, if I die in the Army, at least I die in a way that my little girl can be proud of me - as a man."  I know Jack made it into the Army and I hope he's still alive.
  • Lamont was a fast-talking freshman.  He struggled a bit in school because his reading level was low and he enjoyed running with the gangs. He was there every day while he was on probation and surveillance; his attendance slipped when he got off probation and eventually he dropped out at age 16.    One day, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got shot in the head with an injury similar to Kathy Giffords.  He's now paralyzed and has the mental skills of a two-year old.  I doubt he'll live to see 30.
  • In one of my first years of teaching, I had a male student named Luis.  He didn't talk much and was always watching the room like he expected something bad to happen.  Luis was also freaking brilliant.  I gave students a chance to test out of courses by exam.  He sat and passed a freshman level Physical Science course and a Biology course. We developed a cordial relationship in part because he had a dark sense of humor and so do I.  He was involved in a local gang and I thought he might be doing drugs. I had asked him if he was doing drugs and he swore he wasn't.  Honestly, I didn't believe him, but he seemed touched that I asked.   He passed my chemistry class without being in class most of the time, then dropped out.  It turns out  I was partially right; he wasn't doing drugs.  He was dealing drugs.  Luis was shot and killed by a potential client according to the police.  The word around school was that the murder was organized by a different gang.  Either way, he was 18 when he died.   

This is in a fairly prosperous area of the USA.  If gang life is this hard here, how much harder is it in El Salvador?
Third main idea:  Badly acted skits by sheltered gringos will not stop gangs.

In the Dillard's photo page, there's a picture of Derick participating in what looks an awful lot like the "Things that Separate Us from Jesus" skit mentioned in Clarissa's blog.  (Both of them have a person wearing the "Scream" costume minus the mask surrounded by poorly staged white people with Hispanic people watching from a safe distance....)

Bluntly, SOS Ministries could be doing these skits anywhere in the USA.  If accepting Jesus is all you need to avoid gangs, why aren't they doing this in Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Lansing, Chicago or anywhere stateside?

  • They aren't doing them because they would be laughed out of their venue. (Seriously.  My students - even the kids from far less rough backgrounds from later in my career - would have been in tears because they were laughing so hard.)  
  •  They aren't doing it because they would be rejected by people living in the areas as amateurs.  Badly acted skits are age-appropriate for junior high students and acceptable (although sub-par) in high school students.  Jill and Derick are in their twenties.  Doing a crappy skit won't win souls for Jesus; you'll simply provide a few minutes of free entertainment while destroying any credibility you had.
  • They aren't doing it because the community members who are trying to change lives would call them out as the dilettantes they are.  In the US, someone would have a sit-down talk with Derick and Jill about their lack of suitable training in education, ministry, health care or infrastructure and give them the options of getting more training or getting out of the way.  (In English.) 

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