Robert BRENNEMAN, Homies and Hermanos:  God and Gangs in Central America, New York, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 294.  $24.95 pb.  ISBN 978-0-19-975390-1.  Reviewed by Timothy WADKINS, Canisius College, 2001 Main St. Buffalo, NY 14208

Most everyone knows that Central America has a major gang problem, especially its northern-most countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  Fewer people will be aware that many young gang members have found a way out of the gangs through conversion to evangelical and especially Pentecostal Christianity.  This is the subject of this important and engaging book. 

Brenneman (St. Michaels College), begins his inquiry with an analysis of how the gangs, particularly the Mara Deiciocho (M-18) and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) developed out of a combination of difficult social and political contexts in Central America and the anti-gang policies of the Los Angeles police department.  Between 1994 and 2004 Los Angeles  deported some fifty thousand Central American immigrant youth with criminal records back to their homelands, swelling jails and leading to the transnational development of the gangs, whose current numbers Brenneman estimates to be at about 70,000.  These gangs are composed of franchise-like cells in virtually all urban areas and they engage in inter-gang warfare, the drug trade, and often violent policies of extortion and theft. 

The rest of the book is then devoted to five primary themes:  1. the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity in Latin America, especially the kind of Evangelicalism that flourishes in theological conservative and morally strict barrio congregations.   2.  The reasons why young people are drawn to gangs, especially the respect given by gangs to individual members, effectively helping them to bypass the shame of impoverishment, disintegrated family systems, and failed education. 3.  The various reasons for and ways that gang members exit the gangs, despite the so-called “morgue rule” which dictates death to deserters;   4. The reasons why some gang members are attracted to Evangelicalism, including, what Brenneman and others refer to as the “evangelical exemption” (that allows gang members to convert as long as they stay faithful), and the important role played by the cathartic, emotional experience of conversion.  5.  The various and often competing methods used by Christian churches and ministries that seek to work with gangs—from the individualistic, conversion based methods of Evangelicals and Pentecostals to the more social and structural approaches of Catholics.  

This book has much to commend it.  Brenneman is a gifted writer and story-teller and this book is replete with compelling personal narratives based on interviews of some 64 former gang members who are now converts.  The greatest contribution of this book is, however, the author’s use of the “sociology of emotions” (loosely connected to the legacy of Emile Durkheim), to explain why young men, and sometimes women are drawn to the gangs, and why some of them eventually convert to evangelical Christianity.  Most scholarly assessments of gang membership hinge upon the context of Central America’s impoverished, gritty realities that hold out no hope for young people and lead to educational attrition at an early age,  migration, family breakdown, crime, drugs and violence.  Since not everyone who grows up in these contexts joins gangs, Brenneman asks what it is that leverages the leap into gang association.  He is certainly aware that there might be many factors at work here, but he suggests that gang association is primarily an attempt to ward off and bypass the deep seated shame that arises from difficult childhoods and disintegrated family lives.  The gang, with all of its rituals and status codes, “offers barrio youth an escape route from shame via a short-cut to respect.” (108). 

In a similar way, although inverted, shame plays a decisive role in explaining why gang youth convert to religious faith.  For Brenneman, it is not just the appeal of evangelical ideas, the evangelical exception made by gangs, or some kind of cost benefit analysis that goes on in the convert’s mind.  It is rather that the evangelical religious world allows men the opportunity to have a deeply embodied, emotional and cathartic conversion experience.  Young men, who have been behaviorally, even criminally, disassociated from and yet still psychologically bound by the tight ropes of shame and guilt, are given the opportunity to feel their feelings.  They can cry out for forgiveness, make a decisive break with a  social nexus where men are not allowed to cry, and be embraced by a loving  community that is in all respects an inversion of the familial ties that bind gangs together. Brenneman has admirably brought the authenticity of religious experience to the forefront of sociological explanations for evangelical conversion in Latin America.   In addition to this, he has also challenged the overly neat scholarly assessment that the rapid evangelical growth in the area is the result of a kind of back door feminism; the idea that evangelical women are converting and leading their husbands into the faith, thus reintegrating families and reducing the culture of machismo.  There is certainly some truth in this argument, but as Brenneman has argued, the collective effervescence of evangelical and Pentecostal experience is not the exclusive domain of the feminine.  Church attendance statistics reveal that Evangelical men, beset with all sorts of shame, seem to be encountering the Balm of Gilead on their own as well.   In doing this, they have opened themselves up to the discovery that real men do cry—they can open up to their shame and feel their way out of gangs and into new, nurturing communities and the possibility of a new life.