This month, six students from The Seattle School will participate in a one-week intensive in Guatemala City. The cross-cultural course, “Engaging Global Partnerships: Creating Conversations with Grassroots Leaders in their Context,” will be hosted by Guatemalan leaders serving Guatemala City communities impacted by poverty, lack of education, homelessness, addiction, and gang violence. Under the leadership and instruction of Dr. Ron Ruthruff, students will be invited to establish conversation partners and increase awareness of those who are loving God and neighbor in a different cultural and geographical location.

“We have to step outside of our comfort zone and the walls of our school for that kind of conversation to happen,” says Dr. Ruthruff. “We have to step into places that are unfamiliar and that expose our own locatedness and woundedness.”

Here, we share an excerpt from Dr. Ruthruff’s 2010 book, The Least of These, about an earlier trip to Guatemala and the people he encountered there.

I recently visited Guatemala City, where 4 million people live. Joel, one of my doctoral students, invited me. He and I met at a training put on by a group called the Center for Transforming Mission (CTM). CTM is an organization that equips young leaders to serve youth and families in tough places around the world. Joel became the Latin American Director. When Joel was going through Bakke Graduate School, I was a professor for an independent study class. The curriculum meant he attended New Horizons Ministries’ volunteer training—to observe lay training and to do pastoral care with high-risk young people. Joel hoped to gain methods to enhance the ministries of Guatemalan leaders working with gang-involved youth and street youth. Joel serves as Director of the Strategy of Transformation (the name in Latin America for the work of CTM because of its partnership with Christian Reformed World Missions).

Strategy of Transformation is “the Barnabas”—encouragers to the Guatemalan grassroots leaders who are serving their own people in really hard places, like gang-involved youth, street youth, and those in prisons in Guatemala City and its surrounding area. My visit to Guatemala was to be the final phase of his independent study. While there, I would observe his work in his context and discuss how New Horizons’ training strategies fit within it. We would delve into how training, practice, and theological reflection could further equip the chaplains and youth workers Joel’s work supports, and enhance his volunteer training program.

My son Clayton gave me a fun-filled caution as he dropped me off for my flight to Guatemala: “Don’t go down any dark alleys and make sure you practice safe theology.” He knows inner-city challenges, not typical tourist attractions, draw me. Clayton loves to make fun in that way because he, too, has learned from living in our own neighborhood that places we feel are unattractive, unsafe, and unfamiliar can actually be places of immense beauty, comfort, and community. Unsafe cities provide an undeniable sense of God’s power. Amidst people’s pain and suffering we find the beauty of God’s grace. In fact, cities provide places for incredible learning because these are places where brokenness cannot be masked by superficial beauty and a false sense of order.

Amidst pain and suffering we find the beauty of God’s grace.

Once in Guatemala City, I had the incredible privilege of seeing beautiful, powerful places and people. I spent time on the streets with street kids, and met an incredible man named Italo. He spends his nights driving city alleys, seeking children who make themselves scarce during the day. These children survive by inhaling cheap glue in order to suppress their appetite—and their pain. Italo welcomed each kid with an incredible greeting, “Hello, beautiful creations of God.” He hugs, plays, and dances on the streets with them. Their eyes once dulled by deadly inhalants come alive when he reaches out to them.

I also met Tita, a woman who runs a school for children in a community full of tin shacks built on the steep hills of a ravine. She serves the La Limonada community of about 55,000 people—35,000 of them children. This city within the city is thought by many to be a place of shame due to the immense poverty its conditions reveal. There’s no clean drinking water, there are major sanitation problems, makeshift electricity, and the neighborhood is considered very dangerous. 250 kids now attend Tita’s two schools. When she walks the streets, women, men, and children all run to greet her with a hug and a smile. As she walks, she stops to kiss each child. She has no formal education; she tells me she was educated on her knees. When I asked her about the requirements for volunteers who would serve with her, she said with a laugh, “Give me crazy people who love Jesus.” She is the Mother Teresa of Guatemala City and everyone in the neighborhood responds to her loving embrace.

LeastBookCoverAs a result of a consultation on street gang outreach in 2005, the group Joel directs was asked to help spearhead a gang chaplaincy initiative into the maximum security gang units of Guatemala’s prison system. While I was there, we visited a young man who had just become a Christian, and who at the risk of losing his life was walking away from gang affiliation. He was being transferred from a prison that housed his fellow gang members to a prison specifically designed for men leaving the gangs and those inmates who had never had any gang affiliation.

In the prison system, gang members are at the bottom rung. Gang members are usually housed in separate prisons on isolated units with other members of their same gangs because of the way they are demonized (or marginalized) by society at large and even within the walls of the prison system. Even if you’ve walked away from gang activity, everyone is skeptical of you. Inmates of the prison system who have never been involved with gangs consider it an honor to kill an inmate who’s been a gang member. It doesn’t matter if you’re a current gang member or a former gang member; it’s sometimes considered a badge of honor to assassinate an inmate who’s been affiliated at one time or another with a gang. The young man had changed prisons, left the gang, and converted to Christianity—he was still a long way from being safe.

I went to the prison with Joel, one of the chaplains in the chaplaincy initiative that he serves, and a young ex-gang member, turned Christian, whom this chaplain was discipling. Every time former gang members walk back into the prison system, they place their own lives at risk since they are no longer affiliated with their gangs and, therefore, have no community to protect them. This adds to the danger of their potential death. Joel and the group he directs try to support the Guatemalan chaplains in their own ministries with resources, some training, and a place in the missional community that is his network.

I was dependent on Joel and the Guatemalan men that day. Their English was much better than my Spanish and we began to discuss where we were heading. Alvin told me, “This is the end of the line. These guys who have left the gangs or have been thrown out would not last a day on the streets. Life in the prison is much safer than freedom on the streets.” The man that we were going to see could not trust a single person in his world. He had risen to power and in doing so had threatened some other members in the gang structure. The details of his departure from the gang were foggy. The man we were to visit had attempted to create better living conditions for the men in his unit, interacted and worked closely with prison administration, and now was out of the gang unit and all alone. Somewhere along the line, his gang brothers that he was advocating for felt like his allegiance to the institution was a form of betrayal and threatened his life.

Alvin began to tell me his story. He was from a very poor neighborhood and had only been a chaplain about a year. At this point, his English speaking fell short and Joel began to interpret Alvin’s story. He grew up in the garbage dumps of Guatemala City. An infamous Central American gang had recruited him at such an early age; he really couldn’t remember how old he had been when he had joined. He grew up in an area with no plumbing, hospital, or schools—sustained on dangerous homemade electricity. His gang was the closest thing his neighborhood had to a police department. The gang protected his family and became his brothers. He told me that by age 15 he was tired of the wars, the politics, and searching from something else. He told me, “I met a preacher who told me all the evil could be washed away by Jesus. I gave my heart to Jesus and I promised to follow His ways.”

One of my dear friends and mentors, Tony, tells me Christians are more than admirers; they are Jesus followers. He always quotes Søren Kierkegaard. He claims there is a big difference between Jesus followers and admirers. He says admirers always keep their distance but followers move close enough to be transformed by the experience. Alvin would make Kierkegaard and Tony proud. He’s a true follower. He went on to tell me that, sometimes, if you are truly converted, your gang won’t kill you but will let you live a religious life separate from the gang. He explained that you had to present your case to the leader and confess your faith. The gang leader would then decide as to whether your faith was authentic or only a mere ploy to get you out of some element of gang trouble.

Admirers keep their distance but followers move close enough to be transformed.

As I continued to listen, I was amazed at how Alvin told his story of life and death in such a simple and matter-of-fact fashion. To my mind, it was like, Oh, by the way, I left the gang and they decided not to kill me. I asked, “Alvin, how did you decide to make this public confession? Why didn’t you decide to just be a nicer gang member? You know, keep your faith personal? Jesus is a personal Savior isn’t He? Why weren’t you more cautious? This is your life you’re talking about.” Alvin looked at me and in the same matter-of-fact tone said, “I read the story in the Bible about Paul being in prison. He wasn’t afraid. He said to live is Christ, to die is gain. I believe the Bible.” Alvin’s voice became filled with joy. “I read it and I knew I would win either way. If I live, I’ll tell everyone that Jesus washed my sins away. If I die, I am with HIm. See, Ron, I win. You win either way.”

I was embarrassed as I questioned whether or not I really believed that verse, I know I didn’t believe it, at least not the way Alvin believed. He knew Philippians 1:21, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Paul pens these lines while he is in prison in Rome. Some scholars argue Philippians is Paul’s last correspondence before he dies. Alvin believed this like Paul believed it. He was filled with conviction.

As we continued our drive toward the prison, we passed open fields. Beautiful greens that turned almost blue in the Guatemalan sunlight. The beauty of the countryside made me forget where we were heading. How could the prison be that bad of a place when the scenery was so gorgeous? We finally arrived at the huge structure that was our destination and parked in a dusty pothole-filled lot. I stood in front of a stone structure that looked like it was built in the 1800s, thinking, this is really a prison. It looked nothing like the prisons back home.

A line was forming outside a ten-foot-high iron gate. All of us walked toward the line: Joel, a missionary from Michigan; Alvin, a former gang member and a man who hoped to become a chaplain; and me. I sure didn’t feel very theologically astute after my car ride with Alvin. He had already taught me a lot. The line was filled with old men and women, small children, and well-dressed younger women. Some of them fathers, some of them mothers, some of them sons, daughters, wives, or girlfriends—all were waiting to visit someone in prison. Men don’t often visit other men in prison, at least not in groups like ours. Immediately, we were pulled out of line. We definitely stood out.

Joel explained to the guard that while we didn’t have a chaplaincy pass for this specific prison, we wanted to visit a young man that he knew from another institution. Joel told the guard that we had an American who wanted to visit the prison. That was me. We were rushed off to the warden’s office. We passed the front of the line and I was wondering if this was a good thing. On our way through the gate, David, the other chaplain, walked over and had a short conversation with an inmate. When he caught up with us, Joel asked him how he knew this guy. David told us that this guy was a warden just three or four weeks ago. Now he was doing time like any other inmate. David commented that he had probably forgotten to pay somebody off. This place seemed crazy and I didn’t know the rules.

Stay tuned next week for the second half of this excerpt, in which Dr. Ruthruff writes about a particular conversation that invited him to wonder about how our isolated, personal faith might miss out on the whole story of God. The Least of These, by Dr. Ron Ruthruff, is excerpted with the permission of New Hope Publishers in Birmingham, Alabama.