In El Salvador, Valentine’s Day is called “Love and Friendship Day” and last month we celebrated love and friendship with all of the women involved in the Free The Girls program here in El Salvador. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and niece were visiting so they helped serve, and a group of women in the States that pray regularly for the girls helped to sponsor the party. We had pizza and candy, a raffle, and a discussion about love.
The reality is that these women have received some very mixed-up messages about love. Sex is very distorted in their minds, and abuse and manipulation by “boyfriends” have further confused any notion of romance, love, and affection for them. Part of my work with them is addressing the lies about what love is not, and affirming what true love actually is.
As part of our discussion, I asked the women to share with me the best representation of true love that they have ever seen. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get, but the first response I heard still surprised me, as one woman called it out without hesitation.
“The love that gang members have for each other.”
In El Salvador these “loving gangsters” terrorize communities, extort small business owners struggling to get by, keep kids out of school because they fear recruitment, and kill mercilessly. Despite all of these things, this is the example of true love that she gave.
She went on to say that gang members protect each other’s honor, respect each other, work as a team, and would give their lives for one another. All of this is true. As twisted as it is that these gangsters are an example of love, the reality for many of these women is that this is what a family looks like. In many respects, they are right in their thinking. A true, loving family sacrifices for one another, upholds the honor of the other members, and treats one another with love and respect.
It is easy to think that I am the one doing all the teaching, but on that day I had a lesson to learn. The truth is I fall short in these areas with my own family, with my co-workers, and even with these women that I serve. Self-sacrifice is hard, giving respect when none is deserved is hard too. But if gangsters can do it in a way that speaks to outsiders, how much more should those of us who claim to follow Jesus be upholding this standard of love?
I can learn everything under the sun about human trafficking, and read book after book about alleviating poverty and bringing restoration into broken lives. But without love, does it really even matter? Because respect trumps knowledge, sacrifice preaches what a sermon cannot, and love shouts louder than words.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, and didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…
…If I had a gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing…
…If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing…
…Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude…It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out…Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance…
…Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love- and the greatest of these is love.
(Verses taken from I Corthinians 13)