photo of gang tattoos

With support from The Wenner Gren Foundation, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Kevin O’Neill is pursuing fieldwork for a new book, tentatively titled The Soul of Security.  Based on fieldwork in Guatemala City and across North America, this research brings a new perspective to Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity’s relationship to one of today’s foundational concepts of international order: security.

Professor O’Neill’s first book, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala, tracked how Christian citizenship re-politicized the faithful in desperately violent Central American urban sites. In this new research project, he focuses on transnational gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. These groups originated among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles, California, during the gang wars of the 1980s. Since then, United States deportation policies have transported these gangs back to Central America, with some of the strongest networks forming in postwar Guatemala. Today, tens of thousands of men and women, many of whom are former soldiers, now smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems. While research currently focuses on why young men and women join these gangs, Professor O’Neill’s project looks instead at the ways out – at two of the most common ways out of a group to which many have already pledged their lives. The first of these is death. The second is Christian conversion.  This curious loophole in gang membership has placed an expanding cadre of Protestant ministers at the intersection of security and salvation, raising a central research question: How does gang ministry exemplify Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity’s growing entanglement with the geopolitics of Central American security?