Feature

A Glorious Church

The gates of hell will not prevail—even behind prison walls

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While on a short-term missions trip sponsored by Sunny Knik Chapel (C&MA; Wasilla, Alaska), André Buckareff, our trip organizer/translator, and I were invited to speak to a group of inmates at a national prison in this third-world Latin American country. The prisoners were enrolled in an in-house discipleship program based loosely on “Teen Challenge,” established by the late Rev. David Wilkerson.

The facility, designed to hold 800 prisoners, currently houses more than 4,000. Overcrowding lends to the worst imaginable living, health and security conditions. We could not take anything in with us. My Bible and reading glasses were carried for me by a member of the faith-based program. A protective bubble of these believers formed around us, and we were instructed, “Do not stop. Do not talk to anyone. Do not look at anyone. Just keep moving. It is very dangerous in here.”

It was as if we were descending into hell itself. We passed through three gated courtyards, each overflowing with prisoners—some milling around, others sitting or lying on mats or filthy blankets. The prison system provides little more than food; any personal needs, including bedding, must be furnished by friends or relatives outside the walls. If a prisoner does not have a supply source, he is at the mercy of the prison population.

We were told that corruption among the prisoners and guards is off the charts. Guards “rent out” the segregated homosexual inmates to prisoners who have money. Child pornography is produced in-house, utilizing children who have been brought inside under the guise of “visiting relative.” Murders are frequent, and some are even scheduled.

As we walked, inmates called out to those in our group in hope of acknowledgement; others tried to reach through our circle of escorts to touch us or grab us. Again we heard, “Don’t stop! Just keep moving.” The stench was beyond description.

Suddenly, we took a 90-degree turn into a distinctively improved environment—the part of the prison turned over to the Christian inmates (see sidebar). As we entered a large courtyard, I was not prepared for what I saw. When asked to speak, I had in mind a group of 20 to 30 prisoners. Before us were about 500 men! Music filled the courtyard as hundreds sang and danced in joy before the Lord in true worship and praise.

I was told that about half the inmates I would be speaking to were born again; the others were allowed into the discipleship program as long as they obeyed its rules. We were brought to the platform, and after a quick, silent prayer to God—Please, help me NOW!!!— I began. With André interpreting, we encouraged the believers with the fact that God was serious about them finding salvation and knew that this is where it would happen. We told them that here, in the middle of this hell, the Lord was raising up a living church as they demonstrated the change Christ can make in an individual who truly surrenders to Him. “The program” would help instill discipline, but Christ brings true life. These men were exhibiting that life every day, in and among the thousands of inmates and guards that made up their world.

Then, André and I talked to those still outside of Christ, simply stating that the Lord knew the thoughts of their hearts, their fears and their struggles. We challenged them not to be satisfied with just following the rules but to take hold of the Life of the program—Jesus, who makes all the difference. “Will you give Him a chance?” we asked.

With that, we started to invite those who wanted to accept Christ as their Savior to come to the platform. But before we were halfway through, men from every corner of that courtyard streamed forward. It resembled a Billy Graham Crusade. I just shut my eyes and started praying, leading them, even as they were still making their way to the front, in a simple prayer of repentance and commitment to Christ.

Afterward I was standing to the side, enjoying this miracle of a church celebrating Christ, when the Lord directed my attention to the dimly lit area where sat the “back row boys.” Every group has them. They are there but not for church. Their reasons for attending are many, but a deeper walk with God isn’t among them.

The Lord spoke in my heart, Go, and touch them with the love of God. Motioning to the chaplain to follow me, I made a beeline for about 30 guys sitting on benches against the courtyard’s wall.

I smiled at the first man, took his hand and in Spanish simply stated, “God bless you.” Then I moved on to the next and the next and the next, until I finished out the row. Without fail, each one erupted in joy at the personal touch and moment of recognition, acceptance and blessing.

But the Lord wasn’t finished. As I reached the end, I glanced up at the wall, which had three tiers of barred windows spaced every few feet. There in the cell window just above my head was a wretched man, filthy, nearly naked, crouching in the window, body pressed hard against the bars, arm and hand outstretched toward me, straining for me to touch him, too. “Señor! Señor!” he cried. Without hesitation I took his hand and said, “God bless you.” He completely exploded in joy! For a brief moment his cell, his life, his world was absolutely filled with light! Even his cell mate jumped up and down with excitement!

I then understood the great “why” of the ages. This man was why Christ came to become a curse and die. The man in the cell window was blind Bartimaeus crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” He was the woman with an issue of blood, who, reaching through the crowd, touched the hem of His clothing. He was the leper who said that if Jesus was willing, He could make him clean. He was the thief on the cross, saying, “Remember me!” He was all of the men in that prison. He was all of humanity. He was me. None of us are any better, cleaner or less defiled than anyone else. Though I have known this truth for years, it had never been so dramatically illustrated. All of us are wretched without Christ, who came to set the prisoner free!

As I stepped away from the wall, André reminded me that I was not allowed to go past the boundaries. I told him it was too late! What would happen if more of us pushed past the boundaries that give us an excuse not to touch certain people with the love of God? A touch is such a small thing, yet for some, it might mean eternity.

And still the Lord wasn’t done. After we toured the “kitchen” and the large section of the prison where the Christians lived, we began to make our way out. Before we reached the last gate, our guide, who spoke very little English, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a section that appeared, if possible, even more deplorable than the other areas. My guide said one word in English: “Homosexuals.”

Sitting on the cot nearest the bars was a nearly naked man, the epitome of despair. He was aware of who we were; the Christian workers are well known in the prison. Our eyes met, and without breaking stride (but breaking the rules), I smiled and gave him the “thumbs up” sign, which in that country means not just “hello” or “okay” but is a deeper recognition of the person. He too exploded with joy, coming up off his cot and returning the sign with great enthusiasm! For the briefest moment of light in all that darkness, his life was touched by the love of God. The Lord spoke to my heart again: That man is you as well.

“You need to get in there and minister to them!” I told the group leader. “They need Jesus, too!”

We were invited back a few days later, and we thanked them for showing us what the Church was supposed to look like and how it was to function. Jesus once said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” They had taken a den of thieves and turned it into a house of prayer and praise!

We gave another invitation for those who were still outside of Christ, and this time I included the men behind those bars and windows in the wall. I couldn’t see the cell on the back wall, but many in the courtyard came forward for prayer.

Near the end, I asked this amazing group of men if they would sing a song with me, a song of just one word that is pretty much the same the world over. They caught the melody quickly, and nearly 500 voices strong sang, a cappella, “Alleluia, alleluia.” What a tremendous experience!

As we were leaving, the boys on the back row stood and applauded, and through the barred windows in the walls all around that courtyard, arms were outstretched, giving the thumbs up signal. God had touched that place again!

Feeding Thousands

The prison we visited has 80 percent recidivism, while the discipleship program has a 70 percent success rate among those who are released from the penitentiary. Some of the less-secure areas of the prison were given to “the program” because the officials knew the Christians wouldn’t try to escape. Food service responsibilities have been turned over to the group as well. Previously, some prisoners had died because food was being wasted or stolen. Now, under the management of this thriving church-behind-the-walls, not a single inmate has starved.

The kitchen, like the rest of the prison, is medieval. The “stove” is a large wood-fire pit with walls three feet high topped by metal grates that hold the huge cooking pots. There is little light in the area, and with the smoke, rising sparks and glowing embers, it does look like an artist’s rendition of hell. Yet in this place, too, these men are demonstrating the life-giving force of the Master, serving two, sometimes three, meals a day to 4,000 inmates. Because of this success, the government approved plans for refurbishing the kitchen.

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