Creating a Better Future for Guatemala´s Youth

June 05, 2014

The children´s center in Guajitos is an oasis for kids who grow up in a world dominated by gang warfare. Living Stones Ministry seeks to get children off the streets and teach them Christian values.

Yo tengo gozo, gozo, gozo, gozo, en mi corazón,
en mi corazón
en mi corazón
Yo tengo gozo, gozo, gozo, gozo, en mi corazón
porque Cristo me salvo.

The room rings with laughter as the group of 40 high-spirited Guatemalan boys and girls, barely able to catch their breath, launch into singing the next stanza of “I´ve Got Joy in My Heart.” With each round they pick up the tempo, making a series of rapid hand motions that conclude with vigorous clapping.

Seven-year-old Jorge, standing in the front row, is ready to do it all over again. In fact, he loves every activity–the singing, Bible lessons, and kicking a soccer ball with his friends afterwards. He´s a regular here, having come to the children´s programs two or three times a week since 2012.

Jorge´s mother, Yaneri, started bringing him to the Living Stones Ministry (LSM) outreach in hopes he would make friends and enjoy a few nutritious meals there each week. With her small income, she could barely pay to keep a roof over their heads. Jorge´s father was not a part of their lives, and the little boy seemed lonesome and reclusive. She feared he would end up joining a gang when he got older.

Those worries are legitimate. While Jorge and his friends sing songs about joy in their hearts, it´s hard to imagine the danger that lurks outside the front door.

The barrio where they live is located in Guajitos, a district of Guatemala City that is notorious for gang-related violence. Teenagers are perpetrators of many of the crimes, but children as young as eight or nine are “recruited” to engage in illegal activities.

Keeping youngsters off the streets helps, but Yaneri realizes the temptations are inescapable. That´s why she is grateful for a ministry like LSM that offers a safe environment for her son and teaches foundational Christian values.

Already she has seen changes in Jorge´s behavior. LSM has become a second home for him. He is more outgoing, and he enjoys reading Bible stories and learning about God´s love for children.

Last winter Jorge heard about the miracles of Jesus in one of the Bible classes. The teacher asked the students if they would like to have a miracle happen in their lives.

Jorge stood up. “I already received a miracle,” he replied. “Now I know I have a father, a Father in heaven Who loves me and cares about me.”

Jorge and his friends enjoy fun activities at the center.

The battle for souls

Saving Guatemala´s children has been the aim of Living Stones Ministry´s founder, Humberto Chavez,* since he started the ministry nearly 20 years ago in the Guajitos slum. He has a sympathetic heart for poor or abandoned kids, having been forced to survive on the streets when he was just seven years old.

The streets are a far meaner place for today´s children. Gang violence has reached epic proportions in the capital city and across the country. Delinquent youths, usually initiated into the maras in their early teens, take part in acts of extortion, robbery, drug trafficking, and crimes against rival gang members.

Last year, just two blocks from the headquarters of LSM, five members of a gang of extortionists and hired assassins were captured in a raid conducted by the National Civil Police. The detainees were teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19. The gang´s leader was 14 years old.

LSM is not immune to the violence either. Chavez said the headquarters building has been broken into and robbed seven times. Gang members are believed to be the culprits. In the last incident the ministry´s cooking utensils and public address system equipment were taken.

Most disconcerting, however, is the manner in which the gangs generate income by levying “taxes” against local businesses, bus and taxi drivers, residents, and even churches. The practice is common, and there is a high price to pay for those who refuse to give into their demands.

According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, 166 bus drivers and their assistants were killed in one year alone in 2009. The majority were killed by gang members for not paying extortion costs.

LSM´s ministry leader said gang members often resort to harassing and frightening youngsters, using them to collect the extortion money.

“They may target a child who is walking to school and threaten to harm the family if the boy or girl doesn´t do what they ask. Of course the children don´t want anything bad to happen to their parents or siblings, so they do it,” explained Chavez. “Or the gangs may offer a child from a poor family cash to carry out their instructions. That´s how they operate.”

A clothing distribution

Socioeconomic problems in the country have helped create an environment which has done little to dissuade youth from gang culture. The same limitations that crippled their parents–lack of education and limited job opportunities–plague their generation too. Neglected and abused children wander the streets and become easy prey for gangs who offer them shelter and satisfy a need for acceptance.

The scourge impacts every level of society, but it is the nation´s youth who are caught in the crossfire as both instigators and victims of gang violence. Thus far neither the police nor politicians have been able to get a handle on the crisis.

Grounded in love

Living Stones Ministry refuses to run and hide. Its main building is located in the midst of Guajitos´ most dangerous barrios, where children are aggressively recruited by gangs at the local schools.

“Our ministry is doing everything we can to steer youngsters away from this path,” said Chavez. “We talk to each child about the goodness of God and how our Heavenly Father can give them a better life than they will ever find in the gangs. We want to plant the Word of God in their hearts while they are young.”

With support from Christian Aid Mission, LSM currently operates eight children´s outreach centers in Guatemala and ministers to more than 800 youngsters ages 4 to 14. Two of the centers are based in Guajitos, collectively serving about 150 children.

Christian Aid has also provided funds for the ministry to distribute food, clothing, and school supplies to the children of families who are most in need.

One of the goals of LSM is to offer recreational activities that will get kids off the streets. This reduces opportunities for gang members to target them for recruitment or extortionist acts. Safely in the confines of the centers, children take part in games and Bible studies and enjoy a meal or snacks. Sometimes they watch educational films warning about the dangers of drugs, gangs, or other societal issues.

In the afterschool program offered at the two city locations, children like Jorge can receive help with their homework or play until their parents get off work. The urban centers are open on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and during weekends.

The six rural centers are open three days a week and serve the villages of Santa Teresa, San Pablo La Laguna, Solola at Pichiya, Xejuyu, Aldea Llano Jalapa, and Tierra Blanca.

LSM is also reaching the parents of the children with the good news of Jesus Christ. On Sundays, children and their parents attend worship services together.

Last year the ministry reported some 70 children and adults received Christ as their personal Savior.

Jorge´s family experienced another miracle within the past few months. God had already used the ministry of LSM to touch the lives of the boy and his mother, but the earthly father Jorge hardly knew had a change of heart too. Now his parents have reconciled.

While years of hurt and separation will take time to heal, Jorge no longer feels abandoned by his dad. Even at a young age, he knows that Jesus is the only One who can truly transform hearts.

The ministry operates eight outreach centers that provide Bible teaching, games, after school tutoring, and a meal or snack for children.

Chavez hopes Jorge will continue to grow in his faith and will be able to resist the pressure to join a street gang. That´s his prayer for all of the youngsters who must confront a dark and dangerous world when they leave the ministry centers.

“We want to be God´s hands to protect them. We want to be God´s heart to love them,” he said. “We want to be God´s feet to carry them to a better future, and we want to be God´s eyes to show them the right path.”

*name changed