Gang life entangled with evangelical churches in El Salvador

While evangelical churches are often viewed as safe havens from gang life in El Salvador and much of Central America, there is actually significant interaction between these churches and gangs, writes Stephen Offutt in the journal Social Forces (online in December). Offut notes that the idea of evangelical churches serving as havens where gang members can safely exit criminal life and find little repercussions from gang leaders has wide currency, especially in a situation where both churches and gangs are a large and fast-growing presence. But in his ethnographic research in the churches of El Salvador, Offutt found that church members have a good deal of contact with gangs through family ties, living together in neighborhoods, and even gang members and their families attending church services. The gangs of El Salvador are so powerful and enmeshed in the everyday life of society that even when pastors preach against involvement with gang culture, some members find it difficult not to cooperate or even work for them in some way (almost half of the country’s businesses experience extortion from gangs).

While it is true that churches can often serve as an alternative to gang culture, it is also true that “Evangelicals, for their part, are more likely to hide gang members who are related to them from the police. They are also likely to encourage family members, regardless of gang or other affiliations, to come to church,” Offutt writes. Family networks are particularly complex among the lower class in El Salvador, where women—evangelical or not— without formal marriage often have children with different partners, making for extended families that connect large numbers of people in the community. The powerful presence of both gangs and evangelicals has led to a situation where they actually share governance in many neighborhoods, sometimes in opposition to the police who are viewed as corrupt. Offutt concludes that the ways evangelical churches are entangled with gangs shows that the former’s “geographic and physical proximity to social problems is as important as the cultural distance that evangelical churches try to create. [Such an approach] recognizes that churches open themselves up to outside influences by creating low barriers to entry.”

(Social Forces,