I grew up in suburban America, and the gang culture I encountered upon our arrival in El Salvador was shocking to say the least. El Salvador is notorious for its criminal gang culture. The gangs are brutal and show little mercy. They threaten slum communities, extort shop owners, and keep school attendance low because kids are afraid of getting recruited at school. Rival gangs kill each other driving the homicide rates up throughout the country.
Most people in El Salvador come into contact with gang members, and the influence that they hold over the society, each and every day. We have some gangsters involved in our ministry, and most of those we serve live in communities controlled by gang members. Many of the women I work with personally are fearful of the gangs, and live at their mercy.
I was speaking to these women last week at our Valentine's Day party and we were talking about true love and what it looks like in our daily lives. As part of our discussion, I asked the women to tell me the best example of love they have ever seen. I expected them to share the love they have for their children, or perhaps the love between and man and a woman. Instead, one of them made a very different observation.
"The best example of love I have seen is the love that gang members have for each other."
Heads nodded in agreement around the room, and several women went on to explain that gangsters respected each other, served without question or complaint, and were willing to die to defend the honor of a fellow gang member. They were closer than brothers, and constantly looked our for each other. Despite the violence, aggression, and cruelty, these gangsters knew something about true, sacrificial love.
For the rest of the day I replayed the conversation over and over in my head. I felt a stab of guilt as I realized these women were seeing love between gang members clearly and undeniably. Did they see love from me? From our ministry team? What about from missionaries and churches here in El Salvador? Tension and back-stabbing are often the norm as ministries compete and tempers flare. What kind of love are we showing? Can we even come close to this gangster level of love?
What about in my daily life? When people see me, do they see love? Or do they see someone in a hurry, aggravated with the heat and culture? Do they see someone willing to sacrifice, or do they see someone losing patience with her children? What about those marital disagreements that balloon into bigger problems and a shortness of grace?
Am I radiating honor, respect, and sacrificial love to those around me?
The truth is that I am falling short in this area. It is easy to focus on what I have had to sacrifice for others, instead of on what has been sacrificed for me. Jesus has a love that rises above what any gang members could ever show. He laid down His life for not only His closest friends, but also His enemies. He laid down His life for me, so how can I not pass that kind of true love along?
I don't have a death threat hanging over my head if I decide to turn my back on those I love, but I do have the promise and hope of life compelling me to love each and every day. I know I have much to learn and far to go, but I'm praying that God can give me a true and unrelenting love…a love that sticks closer than a gangster.
I would love to hear about your experiences…what examples of love are evident in your culture? Have they helped you to see your own calling in a unique way?