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Mighty Love in El Salvador

To missionaries Kenton and Elsie Moody, love is not a fuzzy feeling that leaves them standing on the sidelines, wishing people well while ignoring the realities of life. It is a mighty, driving force that calls them to risk their lives in the gang-run communities of Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Most outsiders would be shot on sight for attempting to enter these communities, but the powerful, life-altering love of Christ shields the Moodys and drives them ever onward.

“The Bible says perfect love casts out all fear,” they state, “so we are not going to retreat.”

The children of Santa Ana, El Salvador view missionary Kenton Moody as their friend and pastor.
The children of Santa Ana, El Salvador view missionary Kenton Moody as their friend and pastor.

Slum Life

Open sewage trickles down the dirt roads and pathways of Santa Ana’s slums. Emaciated dogs and chickens scrabble through puddles of waste before wandering into homes — many of which are simply tarps stretched across tree branches.

Raggedly clothed children with matted hair and wide, searching eyes putter through courtyards, chasing chickens and peeking shyly from dark corners. Those children, and scores more like them, have experienced things no child should ever know about.

But when Kenton and Elsie appear in the doorway, these same children come running with squeals of delight. They drink in the Moodys’ gentle words and hugs as though their very lives depend on it. And in some cases, they probably do.

Through no fault of their own, children are forced to witness acts of violence, rape, perversion and prostitution. In many cases, they are forced into sexual slavery — even by their own mothers. The horrors they see and experience from the earliest ages predispose them to mimic the same behaviors, perpetuating the cycle of brokenness and sin.

“The poor transcend religion, culture, everything. They are the world’s largest unreached people group, and God has called us to reach them,” Kenton says. “The best way to do that is by loving them. In many cases, we are their last barrier keeping them from falling over the edge.”

Center of Hope

“If you do not help these children, who will?”

The Lord’s question to Kenton and Elsie was blunt. Their response was bold.

In 2010 they opened Center of Hope, a safe house and after-school program for children and youth in Los Angeles 1, a gang-controlled squatter community of Santa Ana.

“Working around the gangs is a continual fight,” Kenton acknowledges. “But if they know you and feel you are a help to the area, they will largely leave you alone. Being surrogate mom and dad to all these children is a heavy responsibility, but it is one we truly enjoy and cherish.”

The children of Santa Ana, El Salvador view missionary Kenton Moody as their friend and pastor.
At Center of Hope, children find respite from the ongoing nightmares of their home life. They can eat, get help with their homework, play safely, and make crafts. They can also attend Bible, English and computer classes. In the process, they are loved and encouraged by the Moodys, center directors Elí and Michelle Moran, and missionary associates Mike and Jess Brown and Brandy Brown.

The healthy affection and involvement from these adults — particularly the men — are perhaps the most important things children receive at the center, since it fills a critical void within El Salvador’s fatherless society.

Most children have never met and know nothing about their fathers. “Stepmen,” as Kenton and Elsie call them, cycle through homes like revolving doors, each one bringing his own brand of abuse.

Boys are nearly always rejected by stepmen since they serve as reminders of a man who came before them. The hurt and anger of young men, coupled with their starvation for love and affirmation, create a vacuum upon which gang recruiters greedily feed.

Gangbangin’

A cluster of young teenage boys stands on the corner, looking shifty and bored. Their spiked hair, Croc-style shoes, and snarky attitudes trumpet their gang membership.

Kenton and Elsie Moody talk with gang members.
Kenton and Elsie Moody talk with gang members.
Kenton and Elsie approach them and strike up a chat.

“You need to come to church,” Elsie says to one. “What kind of life is this for you?”

As the conversation progresses, one boy confesses his dream of escaping to the United States. Another says he wishes for a family. If he could, he says, he would change everything about his life.

The break in the boys’ attitudinal façade is fairly brief, and the Moodys tell the boys goodbye. But Kenton and Elsie will be back. Three to four times a week, they walk through slum communities, showing residents their commitment, trustworthiness and stability.

Kenton and Elsie pastor La Puerta Abierta (The Open Door). The church is located squarely on a highway that divides rival gang territory. While many other churches in El Salvador shy away from gang members, the Moodys seek them out. They view themselves not only as pastors of the church, but also of the surrounding communities.

“In the U.S., many churches find themselves in the position of being influenced by the culture rather than influencing the culture,” says Kenton. “It is often the same here. Gang culture influences the church rather than the other way around. But we have to be strong enough to influence the gangs.”

 

In the gang culture, young gangbangers are viewed as expendables by those more powerful. Children as young as 3 are used to run messages. Recruiters frequent public school classrooms to identify promising young men and court them with shoes, clothes and false promises. But once young men are deceived, a dark reality sets in, leaving them with little or no control over their lives.

Kenton and Elsie, on the other hand, urge these young men to look carefully and critically at their decisions, make wise choices, and consider their futures.

Elite

This year El Salvador has experienced an unparalleled wave of violence. Gang homicides and other murders are racking the nation, and people live in fear.

“Gangs are invading every aspect of society,” Kenton explains. “They move massive amounts of arms and drugs, and they attack soldiers with automatic weapons.”

For those involved with gangs, the only ways out are to be killed or to confess salvation in Jesus Christ. If someone does the latter, they will be watched relentlessly. Should they do something that seems “unchristian,” they will be shot.

Such is the scenario facing Armando*, a former leader of one of the nation’s most vicious gangs. When he began attending Open Door Church, Mike Brown approached him and asked if he could pray for any need in Armando’s life.

Armando replied, “Pray that I will be able to stop killing people.”

Eventually Armando and his family received Christ. Today they live with the threat of possible gang revenge, but their desire to serve God is greater than their fear.

The Open Door team aims to save young men before they progress to the point Armando did.

“You kill a predator by cutting off its supply,” Mike says. “To gang leaders, young guys are a source of supply. We have to take them away so the gangs will eventually wither.”

To provide young men an alternative to running with gangs, Kenton and Mike built Elite, an enormous obstacle course, on church property. Elite gives young men a means to learn, train and compete.

Mike Brown leads boys in the Elite training program.
Mike Brown leads boys in the Elite training program.
“On the course we train them to take a stand, overcome obstacles, and operate as a team,” Mike says.

In the Elite program, participants are required to complete a rigorous workout and obstacle course, followed by a devotional.

With raw determination, even very young boys complete the course. Many do so wearing clothes or shoes that are far from comfortable for such activity. Some opt to kick off their shoes and complete the course barefoot.

“We strip away their machismo through physical exercise,” states Mike. “Eventually they learn that in their weakness Christ will make them strong. Completing the course lets the guys feel proud and admired for their accomplishments. It fills a huge gap.”

Hope in Hosanna

Hosanna Community stands in stark contrast to the many slums around it. Its approximately 27 families — particularly elderly and disabled people and single moms — live in small, neat homes painted in bright colors and designs. Kenton and Elsie have built 140 such homes in various slums in the area.

“We had to do something about homes for as many as we could,” says Kenton. “We could not live in a decent home while other people around us lived in plastic.”

Mike Brown leads boys in the Elite training program.
Also located in Hosanna Community is a Bible training institute and Hosanna School, which serves 280 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The campus is striking, with lush fruit trees and even a butterfly farm.

Every child at Hosanna School has a story and a tragedy to overcome. One such student is 17-year-old Paty, who moved to Santa Ana after being raped and terrorized by a school superintendent when she was 12. As a result of the brutality, Paty became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Yohana.

Paty learned about Jesus at one of Elsie’s groups for single moms, and she and 5-year-old Yohana now faithfully attend Open Door Church. Through Paty’s witness, her mother (who previously ridiculed Paty mercilessly for her Christian faith) also came to know Jesus. Paty is continuing her education and hopes one day to be a teacher and have a strong Christian marriage.

As she continues to follow Christ and support her daughter against all odds, Paty says it is also important to avoid temptations and distractions.

“Trust Jesus. He is the only solution,” Paty advises. “He can heal our wounds and make a difference.”

Uniquely Prepared

Both Kenton and Elsie recognize that their life experiences to this point have prepared them for the kind of ministry in which they are now engaged. Kenton previously served as a missionary to Panama and also worked 12 years with Convoy of Hope. After he and Elsie (who is Salvadoran by birth) married, he spent almost a month living in a slum neighborhood — in a shack made of plastic sheeting — so he could understand the daily lives of the people he was called to serve.

“Poor communities are in constant conflict,” he says. “The Book of Proverbs says poverty is the ruin of the poor. Emotional, spiritual and psychological poverty seeps deep into every aspect of these people’s lives and continues to affect them no matter how much they gain financially or materially.”

Kenton and Elsie are committed to sharing God's love to the people of Santa Ana.
Kenton and Elsie are committed to sharing God's love to the people of Santa Ana.
Elsie shares her wisdom and experience with many single mothers through Caring People — an outreach of the church. Fifteen Caring People cell groups meet around the area.

For Elsie, trust in God is a way of life. In 2014, she was stricken with aggressive cancer. As she battles the disease, she and Kenton are determined to remain bold, unshaken, and full of faith for her healing.

“We ask people to pray that we will be protected from the attacks of the devil, especially those upon Elsie’s body,” Kenton says. “Here in El Salvador, prayer is our primary line of defense. Missionaries here — and everywhere — need more than just a brief prayer of blessing. We need intercession.”

“God is lifting us up and being lifted up,” Elsie concludes. “No matter what comes our way, we will go forward. We know what we have to do, we love what we have to do, and we have to press on. Nothing will stop us.”

The perfect, mighty love of God has cast out all their fear.

*Name has been changed.

KRISTEL ORTIZ

is a staff writer for
AGWM Communications.

 

To view more photography of the Moodys’ ministry in El Salvador, go to agwm.com/wvphotos.

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