Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the Isthmus in the state of Oaxaca with two missionary colleagues, Dr. Cindy Hoover and Jo Ellen Reaves. It was a joy to see how God is at work in the Covenant church and Semillas de Salud (Seeds of Health), a Covenant non-profit health ministry headed up by Cindy. (Nils shared about his trip to the Isthmus with Semillas de Salud here in his blog entry last November.)
While there we shared many meals with the three local leaders with whom Cindy has been working and training as well as visited a few sites where Semillas has done health screening, including churches, schools and the local prison. Of all the visits and conversations, the time we spent at the prison has caused me to pause and reflect the most on God’s work in this world.
I have to admit I was a little nervous entering the prison, the living conditions seemed so depressing. I remember praying over and over while we were there, Lord, please just open my eyes to see you here. We were led into the dining area near the chapel. Besides the structure of the buildings looking almost inhabitable, there were flies and mosquitos everywhere and the food looked like it had little flavor and few vitamins.
When we first arrived, I wondered why I had come. Dr. Cindy and the Semillas team were busy checking prisoners’ hemoglobin, while I — who gets queazy from just watching the finger pricks — sat in the entrance to the chapel watching people. I feel one of my gifts is listening to and encouraging others, but honestly, I had no idea how to start up a conversation. Even a simple question like, ¿como estás? (how are you?) seemed laughable. What I really wanted to ask was, “What are you in here for?” but of course, I had no right to ask, and that would not help open a door for forming a relationship of respect. So, I sat there and talked to God in my head, throwing out lots of questions, like: Lord, how is it that you allow people to live in such misery? Where are you, God? Is there any hope for these people? Is there hope for the many kids I saw running around, presumably visiting their parents — later I found out that some were born in the prison and lived there permanently with their mother.
As I sat there and offered weak smiles to those who were entering the chapel to pray, I wondered about what life has been like for them, both before entering prison and now in the prison. And I continued to pray, Lord, help me see you, somehow, in all of this.
Now as I reflect on what happened that morning, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, God answered my prayer by sending a middle aged man to talk with me. He started out by asking me some questions, listening to me, and offering the usual praise I get for being a missionary (which I have to say always makes me uncomfortable since I am a sinner saved by grace, like any other Christian). But, he seemed sincere in his praise and was probably trying to encourage me.
He then started to tell me about how good God has been to him (really? but do you see where you are? I thought), and how he loved sharing with other prisoners about God’s mercy and grace. He shared about his faith in a simple, but insightful and reflective way that I admired, and I enjoyed listening to him. At the same time, I felt a nudge by the Spirit to ask about his family, and he opened up a little bit, basically saying they were OK, even though he was in prison, because God was providing for them.
After we had been talking for about 20 minutes, he told me why he was there – a year ago he had wrongfully been accused of rape. This was very difficult for me to hear and instantly changed my view of him. Up until this point he had seemed quite humble and full of the Holy Spirit, but as you know, a big part of my ministry is working on preventing and healing from abusive relationships, and I immediately thought of the victim and her pain. I tried so hard not to judge this man, but “wrongfully accused”, really? My internal response was like that of Red in Shawshank Redemption who sarcastically welcomes Andy saying “You’re gonna fit right in. Everyone here is innocent, you know that?” Of course this man would claim to be wrongfully accused, isn’t that what everyone in prison says? On the other hand, I am aware of the brokenness of the Mexican justice system and that there are in fact many people who are imprisoned without due process. (Listen to one example here).
As we continued talking, however, I saw that it was not my place to determine this man’s guilt or innocence. Furthermore, God used this conversation to show me the wideness of His mercy and just how big His Kingdom is. Let me explain…
After telling me he was innocent of the crime, he admitted that he could understand why those who had accused him thought it was him. He confessed to me that he had in fact been a rapist and everyone knew it. Before he came to Christ 12 years ago, he tells me, he was a very bad man. He lived a life full of sin, a life of drug trafficking, neglecting and abusing his family, a love of money, guns and danger. He told me how one night he came home to his 8 year old son with a gun in one hand and a butt-load of cash in the other, besides some drugs hidden on him. His boy wanted to greet him, but he just told him to go away and leave him alone.
Then came the big confession. No, he said, he wasn’t guilty of the particular charge of rape for which he was imprisoned. He did, however, confess he was guilty of raping 70 other women! After hearing that number, I was pretty much in shock, I could not focus on whatever else he was saying. I couldn’t believe I was sitting right next to a man who had violated so many women, taken aggressively what was not his, caused deep pain to innocent people.
In the midst of my shock, God opened my ears to hear something important that He wanted me to hear. One night he lay in bed with his wife and watched her sleep peacefully, and he realized that he was a slave to sin and he couldn’t break free. He wanted that peace, and he asked God to help him. That was the start of his conversion, his salvation, his life transformation.
But, really, God is it possible? Is this unbelievable life transformation really possible? And, even if he really has changed, what about all those people he so deeply hurt? His wife and kids? The 70 women?
He went on to say that since coming to Christ, he has shared his testimony with everyone he knows, his neighbors, his family, and he gives all the credit to God for saving him. He admitted that he was never caught for the sins he committed before coming to Christ, but now even though he was paying for something he never did, he was willing to pay. He trusted God had a purpose in it all, and that he’d rather be in prison and free in Christ, free from bitterness, hatred, seeking revenge and violence, because he had found a calm, quiet trust in a God who forgives all those who truly repent, no matter how big or how many the sins.
The next day I was to preach a sermon based on the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Christ at the Ixtapec Covenant Church entitled: The Good News: Freedom in Christ! My focus was on how Jesus freed the Samaritan woman from living as a victim of abuse to becoming an evangelist of Christ. The evidence of this amazing transformation is that this woman returns to her community, which included the same men who used her and tossed her aside and the women who harshly judged her, to share the good news with her abusers, that they, too, can find freedom in the living water that wells up to eternal life.
One of the reasons I was visiting the prison that day was so that God could remind me, through my encounter with this broken, repentant and forgiven prisoner, that all things are possible in Christ Jesus. God is making all things new. In Jesus both victims and abusers can find healing and freedom!