When we were kids, my friends and I would play lots of games like tag, hide and seek and kick-the-can. Sometimes we would set up complicated rules with teams and a designated "no-man's land" which was to prevent us from sneaking behind the other team's goal. Usually the objective was to make it to home base or "safety" before getting tagged or found or pelted by snowballs.
There are two gangs in our sister church community. MS (Mara Salvatrucha) plays tag on the walls with big blue spray-painted letters, claiming the pathways near the school and the soccer field as its territory. M-18 is less obvious with the paint, but more obvious with their presence, owning the paths with such intimidation that community leaders have not been able to maintain the pathways and waste water and erosion have converted the concrete stairways into slippery, sludgy, smelly hazards. Families who live in the MS section can't walk over to the 18 section. Kids who live in the 18 section have body-guard moms who walk them to and from school each day, across the border. There have been murders in both halves of the community, although the 18 side has suffered more with "hits" being carried out on young people who have lived in the neighborhood since they were toddlers.
The church sits in the middle, on the border between the gang territories. When soldiers station themselves in the community, they gather around the church, and an observer might describe the church's hilltop location as "no-man's land" - a place without spray-painted tags and guarded by occasional sentinels with big automatic guns. Despite appearances, it doesn't take too long to figure out that this church is not a "no-man's land" kind of church. This church is a busy church. This church is an every-day-of-the-week church. This church does not say, "gang members, stay away!" This church does not do ministry with one group or another. This church says, "We are the home base. We are the safety."
The people know the story of how the pastor led the 1996 pilgrimage of 150 displaced families to these little plots of land, and how together they claimed the top of the hill with a simple iron cross. They built a simple structure of bamboo and corrugated tin, like their homes, which served as the first school, the first clinic, the first community center, the first place to welcome strangers from the North. Division in the community came with the people: religion, politics, war wounds, and eventually the gangs. The people know the story of how the community worked together despite differences to advocate for a school, electricity, a community center, water.
Eventually the time came to build a new church building, and the people know the story of how the pastor and church leaders first built up the community by establishing Bible study groups in different sectors, training youth leaders to lead youth group meetings in neighborhood sectors, allowing people to gather for study and fellowship and support without the need to walk across gang boundaries. The people know the story of how the pastor and Bible study leaders invited MS gang members to help build the church on some days, and 18 members on other days.
When the church building was finished and people began to come for worship, for Sunday School, for Women's Group, for Men's Group, and for Youth meetings, the people came from this side and that side of the neighborhood. The pastor sometimes received threats. He couldn't safely walk to do house visits, but he invited the people to come to the church. He received phone calls seeking extortion money. "You know me," he responded, "You were with me in Sunday School. We played soccer. You know I have no money. The only thing you can extort from me is love."
On a Sunday morning in November, a gang member stood at the podium to read the scripture lesson from a paper on which he had written the words in large letters. Beside him stood a non-gang member, standing in solidarity with his friend and giving him courage to read because his friend suffers with terrible eye problems. Other gang members sat in white plastic chairs and listened.
On a Sunday noon in November, we sat at a table made from a large piece of wood placed across saw horses. This table stands up to its history as the original altar, the Sunday School table, the medical exam table and often our dinner table. We ate lunch. We talked with the community President about the deterioration in the M-18 streets and the need to restore the area. The pastor said he received a message that someone in the M-18 area wanted to talk with him. He said he didn't believe it was a malicious request and asked us to accompany him.
On a Sunday afternoon in November, we were walking down the path and a woman invited us to her home. She went down the way and gathered up three teen boys. We met with the boys in her back yard. One of their friends had told the mom that one of them had wanted to talk with the pastor. Maybe these boys were at risk of joining the gang. Maybe these boys were dabbling in gang activities. Maybe one or more of these boys were already in.
The boys were shy. The pastor asked the mom to explain how we had ended up in her back yard together. "My son is almost the age of these boys. I am worried for him, as I am worried for every boy on my street. These are my neighbors. God put it on my heart to be an intermediary, to open my home as a place where they could come and you could come."
The pastor spoke gently with the boys. "What are your dreams for the future?" It was quiet for a long time. "I want to grow up, to have work, to get married, to care for my family."
Maybe they had come to the church long ago, when they were little. One said, "I remember that it was my job to move a big table into the church - a big table that we used for Sunday School."
"We still need you to come and move the table. Come to the church whenever you want to talk or need a friend. It's your home base. It's your safety."