His heart pounded heavily in his chest as Arnold stood silently at the front door. A million thoughts flooded his mind: What am I doing here? I’m not qualified for this. Why did I agree to this? Everything inside of him screamed to turn around and run the other direction.
Instead, he raised his hand and knocked on the heavy wooden door. And after what felt like an eternity, the door opened and there stood in front of him Juan, the top leader of one of the most violent gangs in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
He stepped into the dimly lit room and was quickly greeted by the stench of cigarette smoke and alcohol. Drug paraphernalia was scattered across the table in the middle of the room. Juan brushed past him and settled back in a chair next to his second-in-command, Carlos.
Arnold could feel his insides screaming once again to get out — to run back to the safety of his home and his family. He knew how dangerous it was to be sitting in the living room of a gang leader. But in the midst of the darkness, he knew God was with him and had given him a mission and an open door.
Kicking Off a Transforming Ministry
Before his arrival at Juan’s house, Arnold Linares was well acquainted with darkness.
As a missionary in the murder capital of the world, he has stared darkness in the face nearly every day. His neighborhood, Riviera Hernandez, is considered the most violent area of the city and often serves as the battleground between two gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang.
Shortly after he accepted Christ as a young man, Arnold felt the calling to minister to an area that had not seen a new church planted in more than 20 years. Today, he has started five churches in San Pedro Sula and surrounding areas— each of them serving as a lighthouse in the community.
As he watched the gang violence intensify, Arnold knew God was still calling him to something bigger.
He joined with other pastors from the area to start a sports project with a goal of reaching out and ministering to local gang members. Through the program, they also have access to educational classes with career and athletic training. Arnold and fellow pastors also had the opportunity to share the love and hope of Christ with them.
What started as a handful of pick-up soccer games soon turned into a soccer league of more than 300 gang members from 10 gangs throughout the city.
And it was this soccer league that brought Arnold to Juan’s doorstep.
After Juan and Carlos joined the league, Arnold offered to provide their team with uniforms on one condition — that they had to attend his church at least once. One church service turned into multiple, and Arnold could see that God was working in Juan’s heart.
So when he received the invitation to visit Juan and Carlos at their house, Arnold was hesitant, but he knew God was opening a door.
Juan asked him, “Pastor, do you really think I could change?” Arnold told them about the hope and transformation found in Christ, and by the end of the day, two of the city’s most notorious gang leaders fell to their knees in the middle of the living room and accepted Christ.
Both men left their positions in the gang, and eventually the gang and its violent impact on the community disappeared entirely.
Lighting the Way to Safety
Word of this revolutionary ministry quickly spread, and Arnold soon found himself in a face-to-face meeting with the president of Honduras. The president commended him for his fearless work and asked how he could help Arnold to expand the program.
Arnold thought of the many nights when danger and violence lurked in the dark corners of the poorly lit neighborhood. He asked to have a park built where the community could gather and 200 streetlights to make the neighborhood safer.
A few weeks later the president authorized 900 streetlights to be installed, bringing light and hope to a community that had only known fear and darkness.
Today the park and community center welcome more than 600 people every day, offering recreational activities, educational programs and career training.