Underground Ministries opens new relationships of embrace and trust between gang-affected prisoners and our communities to which they return, for our mutual transformation and resurrection.
Tierra Nueva Ministries is an ecumenical Christian mission among the most marginalized in central Honduras (since 1981) and in Washington’s Skagit Valley (since 1993).
The Gang Ministry is just one of Tierra Nueva’s many branches. I, Chris, came to Tierra Nueva in 2005 to study as a jail chaplain under TN’s founder, Bob Ekblad, author of Reading the Bible With the Damned. In our jail Bible studies, it was always the skinny, tattooed gangsters who had the most energizing insights into the mission and work of Jesus:
Gangs understand grassroots missions. They excel at recruiting the lost and unreachable. Unlike many American Christians, they have experience in risking their lives for one another, proclaiming an alternative kingdom, losing everything they have and getting arrested for what they believe. While they were not interested in church as usual when we met in the jail Bible studies, many of these men were drawn--as we read the New Testament together--to how Jesus moved among the outcasts of his time and called them to follow Him.
I shared this attraction in common with these tattooed criminals my age.
As I prayed with these men, visited them in jail and on the streets and in hidden motel rooms, accompanied them to court and helped pay their fines, they started to call me their “pastor.” For ten years now, I have honored this “ordination from below” and given my life to the work of being a gang pastor.
Sheep without a shepherd
Jesus founded his gang of disciples and sent them out in response to what he saw: the “multitudes . . . he had compassion on them . . . for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9). Minority youth, kids of the migrant fieldworker class, are growing up scattered on the streets. Sheep trying to form themselves into a band, a family, a nation. They need a shepherd. A pastor. Many of them. Soon.
An unreached people group
Many of the guys I’m working with in Mexican gangs know more about Aztec sacrifice and cosmology than anything about Jesus, the Son of God who gave Himself over to us. Their eyes pop open in Bible studies and long drives to their court dates when they hear the most basic teachings of Jesus. There is a fresh receptivity among many of them, as in stories I heard growing up from missionaries in distant lands.
Strategic criminal intervention
Many gang leaders are not just hurting themselves, rivals, or bystanders—they, sometimes, could be moving kilos of drugs through a city or playing a role in the sex trafficking industry. These men are opening their hearts to us, while evading law enforcement. We seek Jesus’ way with the “tax collectors” of his day, eating with them, praying for them, drawing them into a richer life of healing and repentance, together with us.
Awareness throughout the church
Our work goes beyond this valley in the Northwest. We feel called to share our stories of God’s goodness among gangs far and wide. We speak in churches, yes, and we’ve been on the conservative 700 Club television program and on the liberal NPR radio programs. We seek to bridge divergent worlds, just as we do between rival gangs. There is a need for mainstream households to hear and see that God is alive, healing lives that appear on the evening news or on the front page, whom many want to see thrown into prisons.
Our mission among gang-affected men and women is to embody the compassion and recruiting attention of Jesus--among some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It is deeper than meeting their felt needs with our legal accompaniment. More than our financial assistance to help them comply with the courts, helping them become free of debt to the system and fathers to their children. It goes beyond just preaching at them in jail. We call these men into Jesus’ gang, pursuing them in the darkest moments of their lives, bringing them into an experience of the One Jesus called Father.
So far, our work has blossomed into the following parts:
Jail : we visit the county’s highest offenders when they are behind bars and most broken
Street Shepherding : we follow up with these scattered lives, “like sheep without a shepherd,”
Legal Advocacy and Accompaniment : many guys get lost in the system, the appointments, the Rubik's cube of social services, criminal debt, driver's licenses, court dates, parole officers, public defenders, paperwork . . . and often stop trying. We pick them up and walk, sit, and drive through it with them. Hope is possible when you're not totally alone.
Tattoo Removal and Cover Up : gang-related tattoos, and expressions of hatred and despair inked onto cheeks and necks, keep guys stuck. Not just from getting jobs, but from seeing a different person in the mirror. We are in the business of removing sins when we can (laser treatments are painful, and drawn out over months), and covering sins with new tattoos with more beautiful meanings (like the Sacred Heart of Jesus over a swastika; or the Cascade Mountain range across a guy's neck, hiding a huge Mexican gang title).
Adoption Into the Church : through speaking at churches and inviting homes/churches like yours to write with men in prison and pray for them, we are connecting the larger family of God to our Father’s newest adoptees and tattooed apostles to the streets
Prison Correspondence : guys who have strong families don’t join gangs. We become their family.
Underground Coffee : we have a premium coffee roasting enterprise to offer income while guys' lives are in transformation, to teach job skills, and to connect our mission--via coffee sales--with cafés, homes, and churches
Juvenile Detention : three of these guys have been approved as new Juvie chaplains! Our team is growing now to include ex-gang-related women as well.
I have been traveling to Guatemala City and Los Angeles and North Carolina for the past few years, researching with grants from Duke Divinity School and the Louisville Institute, all with the same findings: ex-gang members--like the once-feared aggressor Saul--are the future apostles who will go where most churches are too timid to go. I believe this is where Christian missions should be investing.
I feel called to help raise financial support not just for me but for guys like Neaners, Ramon, Jesús, Julio, and others to join me as developing outreach pastors at Tierra Nueva and in our valley. I would love to invite you prayerfully consider joining me in investing in these rare, grassroots leaders for the next next generation.
Our work is sustained by individuals and families who have become monthly financial supporters. Please email me if you would like to join us. firstname.lastname@example.org Or click the link below if you would like to give a one-time donation towards the Tierra Nueva Gang Ministry. All giving is tax-deductible as we are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
You can get an every-few-weeks newsletter in your inbox. In it, I tell stories from the ministry and ask folks to back us up in serious prayer. If that sounds like something you want to be a part of, I'd love to hear from you.