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Pastor William lives in a neighborhood ruled by one of Latin America’s most notorious gangs.

Like many Christians in the area, he used to avoid all contact with gang members. Then he realized that he had a responsibility to love even his neighborhood’s most feared and despised members.

Over a year ago, Pastor William started making daily visits to a local prison to share Scripture with gang members. Fearing for his safety, the guards would only let him meet with inmates for an hour, and only from outside their cells.

But that wasn’t enough for Pastor William. He started asking the guards for a chance to physically share space with gang members.

After numerous refusals, the guards finally agreed that he could visit with the gang members, one small group at a time. They urged him not to meet with the gang leader or the most violent gang members. Pastor William, however, would not be dissuaded.

When they finally met face-to-face, the gang leader asked to hug Pastor William. The guards warned that it could be a trick to kill him, but Pastor William went for it anyway. As they embraced, the gang leader whispered, “Pastor, thank you for coming into our prison. Thank you for coming consistently. Thank you for loving us when no one else will.”

Pastor William is part of a growing network of Guatemalan Christian leaders seeking to spread God’s love and grace in Guatemala City. Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) partners with the Center for Transforming Mission Guatemala (CTMG) to train and support these leaders in reaching out to people whom the church has traditionally ignored.

Begun in 2005, the center initially focused on equipping Guatemalan leaders to follow Jesus’ example in serving the “least, last, and lost.” The leaders worked with urban youth ensnared in poverty, gangs, prostitution, or other difficult situations.

As the training expanded to other leaders and countries, the center added a spiritual formation component.

CRWM missionary Joel Van Dyke has worked with CTMG since the beginning and has seen the challenges its members face.

“When you understand the implications of incarnational mission and begin to apply it in a broken, dysfunctional community,” he explained, “you’re going to find that things happen that you’re not prepared for. Once you get there, you’re a mess unless you have a spirituality that can sustain the work.”

This year CTMG initiated a third ministry focus: organizational capacity building. CTMG’s network includes churches and nonprofit organizations that offer feeding programs, shelters, educational programs, and other ministries.

While these organizations have the vision and passion for ministry, they do not always have the necessary infrastructure for sustainability. CTMG’s new training program will provide directors with tools for helping their organizations succeed.

“Transformation cannot occur outside of community,” said Van Dyke. “What cities need is a group of people who come to a table committed, not to get something from the table but to put something on the table for the city’s spiritual and social transformation.”

Across Guatemala City, leaders like Pastor William are breathing grace into the lives of people typically cast aside—and they’re receiving grace in return. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, God’s love and grace is beginning to transform neighborhoods renowned for violence.

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