La Dina is one of the most dangerous cities in El Salvador.
Gang culture, incarceration, and violence plague the population, ensnaring men of all ages in a lifestyle of crime and death.
But one church is working to counter the culture of violence and bring the Gospel to La Dina.
Murder, extortion, robbery, and violence are a way of life in La Dina.
The city is heavily influenced—and being destroyed—by the MS-13 and Barrio 13 gangs, which are constantly fighting for control of the streets.
Young men in the city are pulled into gang life early on, facing death, incarceration, and drug use at alarming rates. Life expectancy is astonishingly low.
Even if a man goes to prison, he finds it incredibly hard to escape gang culture. Upon his release, he can find no refuge from the violence of La Dina.
For many men in the city, however, freedom and hope are found at a church called Eben-ezer.
Eben-ezer, an inner-city church, serves as an outreach and rehabilitation center for those trying to escape the gang lifestyle. And it is run by an ex-hitman, Will Gomez.
Gomez was a criminal trapped deep in the gang lifestyle. He took “countless lives” as a hitman for the gang, and violence was his life. But all that changed when he became a follower of Christ.
“I’m a walking testimony, I believe, of God’s power to change people,” Gomez shared. “Society believes that a person like me…doesn’t deserve a second chance.” Yet he’s found one in the name of Jesus, and wants to offer the same to others like him.
“There’s a way out, and the name of it is Jesus,” he said. Encountering the Gospel is the only way that gang members, hitmen, and criminals can change, a fact that Gomez knows personally.
It’s a dangerous message to share in La Dina, where MS-13 and Barrio 13 work hard to re-recruit their members as soon as they get out of prison. So when Gomez invites gang members to attend Eben-ezer Church, the gangs get angry.
The church’s work is closely watched and Gomez has received threats. “I’m not a well-liked person because of what I do,” he admitted. But he’s not afraid.
“We have traced the line…a line of respect,” he said. “This is God’s Kingdom—don’t mess with God. We don’t get involved in your business, don’t get involved in ours.”
Gomez is bold in his work, even in the face of opposition, and he’s seen real results and change in the city and in the men he works with.
Eben-ezer offers daily Bible studies, prayer, and worship services to help former criminals move closer to God. Some men are also offered the opportunity to live at the church and work every day to support themselves and stay out of the gang culture.
“I’m fighting,” explained one man at Eben-ezer. “I feel free. I am a Christian, but there are temptations.”
The pressure of gang culture doesn’t just go away when a man joins Eben-ezer. MS-13 and Barrio 13 are constantly trying to pull their members away from the church and back into a corrupt and violent lifestyle.
Sadly, not everyone who walks through the doors at Eben-ezer stays long enough to experience true salvation. Some of the men go back to their old lifestyle, often winding up in prison again—or dead.
“Look, if you’re a Christian, behave like one, live like one, act like one, walk like one—you won’t have any problems whatsoever,” said Gomez. “But if you’re not sure of what you are, or who you are, you’ve gotta be careful. Because you don’t play with the Devil, and you don’t play with God.”
“Either you are or you’re not…simple as that,” Gomez concluded. He urges the men at Eben-ezer to commit their whole lives to the pursuit of Christ and His righteousness.
Either you’re with God, or you’re with the gang.
It’s a powerful testimony to the city of La Dina. “God believes that a gangster can change,” said one of the men at Eben-ezer. “I’m not a gangster anymore.”
If God can change a gangster, He can change anyone!
Pray for the ministry of Eben-ezer, and pray for God’s continuing work in La Dina. It’s a dangerous place that’s deeply in need of His grace.