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Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala
Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala
Kevin Lewis O'Neill
University of California Press, 2015
304 pp., $29.95

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Rudy Nelson


"Soul Security"

Another look at Christianity and gangs in Guatemala.

Although Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended in 1996, in recent years transnational street gangs have turned Guatemala City into a lethal combat zone. The backstory of this gang violence—especially in the northern triangle of Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala—is by now familiar territory, having been reasonably well covered in the U.S. media. In the wave of immigrants who fled civil strife in Central America and opted for a new life in el norte, a significant percentage settled in the Los Angeles area. In the course of time, thousands of their offspring—having become part of the LA drug culture as both users and sellers—formed hostile competing gangs, got into serious trouble with the law, often spent time in prison, and then were deported in droves. Back in the countries their parents had left, this massive influx of rootless youth sank into a progressively worse violent life, as gangs warred with each other, with the largely ineffective police, and with brutal private security forces. The crisis escalated when gang members inevitably got deeply involved in the exploding international drug trade.

In Secure the Soul, his extensively researched ethnographical study of this violent world, Kevin Lewis O'Neill has focused on the significant way Christian groups have been addressing the problem in the early years of the 21st century. A skeptical reader, noting the book's subtitle—"Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala"—might anticipate an array of emotional "Come to Jesus" appeals along with the shallow practices and simplistic solutions of a folk Christianity and consider it highly unlikely that the book would contain any new insights.

The skeptical reader would be dead wrong.

I can best lay the groundwork for discussing what's new and surprising in Secure the Soul by drawing on a passage from missiologist Andrew Walls's book The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Walls ...

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