The following is part one of a two-part feature. Click here to view part two!
By Kathryn Watson
Peter and Dara DeSoto had an ordinary life. Many people would’ve considered it far better than ordinary: Peter, a charismatic and passionate young man, had found success in sales and Dara was in love with her role as a stay-at-home mother to their four children. Their little home in the California suburbs was framed with roses and a footpath. Things weren’t always easy, but they were stable. Predictable. Comfortable.
After visiting El Salvador with a ministry called ENLACE in 2003, Peter DeSoto came back convinced that “comfortable” wasn’t a place God was taking him. From that first trip to El Salvador to see ENLACE working to equip the local church there, he knew that comfortable was not going to be enough. Recalling his initial visit, Peter says, “I felt like I was around men and women who were living the church I read about in the New Testament. They were bringing hope to the most desperate situations, and paying a tremendous price. I left the donor trip determined to become more a part of it.” Even during that inaugural trip, Pete can clearly recall God asking him to step forward in faith.
Within the year, Dara and Peter had sold everything they had, including their picturesque home, and embarked with their family to serve the people of El Salvador with ENLACE. “When we moved to El Salvador, I didn’t think about the fact that we were going as ‘missionaries’. I just felt like we were responding to the Lord’s invitation to follow Him to El Salvador,” Dara says about that time.
Their role from the onset was very specific. “We were looking to build a model where local pastors and the leaders directed the vision and implementation of their outreach and community projects,” Peter says. He admits, “It was difficult to do.” Peter and the team at ENLACE didn’t want to create a situation that overwhelmed the Salvadoran churches and made them more dependent on the donor money coming in than on their own growing communities of local Christians. But in a place where the needs of the people were so dire, ENLACE also didn’t want to limit opportunities for ministry expansion. It was a balancing act, but during the first two years of his tenure, Peter remembers tremendous growth. “We supported the work of a local church and helped complete projects that actually alleviated poverty,” he says.
Teams from the United States came to work on these projects, but the focus was always on grassroots solutions to what the Salvadorans needed. Peter puts it this way: “Rather than just working on isolated projects designed by outside mission groups, we experienced communities whose lives drastically improved because of the local church, and as a result were open to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The focus on hyper-local, dedicated churches and their leaders gave the DeSotos a unique opportunity to make their ministry something immersive. This was foundationally essential to what they were trying to do, and it was hard—especially at the beginning. The DeSotos relocated several times, each time living in a home that belonged to someone connected to ENLACE. The spaces were often crowded for a family of six. Add to that the language barrier and, Peter says, “The first year was rough (…) We prioritized learning Spanish and growing authentic relationships with Salvadorans the first year. As we did, our heart for the people in El Salvador grew intensely. Rather than our goals changing, the intensity to achieve them grew. ”
Reflecting on the culture at the time, Peter says, “There is such a history of pain, violence and injustice that only Jesus could change the hearts of people, both to heal the hurting and convict the perpetrators.”
The equivalent of a gang war between the government of El Salvador and its citizens has been ongoing for decades. As a result, the murder rate in El Salvador was and continues to be one of the highest in the world. The statistics are staggering and continue to worsen; in 2015, it was estimated that one in ten Salvadorans was economically dependent on gangs.
That statistic makes the next one less of a surprise, but no less easy to swallow: El Salvador’s annual homicide rate is 92 murders for every 100,000 people.
To hear Peter describe it: “Gang warfare terrorizes town after town. The prisons are overflowing, and most [people] are scared with little hope for the future.”
On one team project expedition, Peter almost became a part of those dire statistics. While driving back from a service project location, he was shot in the throat by a masked assailant. Through a series of obstacles and dramatic near-misses (including a helicopter airlift, earthquakes, and landing inside the gates of a dangerous prison), he survived the journey to a hospital that provided life-saving surgery. But as he healed from the surgery, Peter and Dara began to see that the aftershocks were just beginning.