About those we most likely forget
Reclusoria Sur Prison, Mexico City
It was one of those days I would remember with acuity. It was part of a four- country visit with Ron Nikkel, for 33 years he was president of Prison Fellowship International. I wanted to see life through the eyes of prisoners and observe this great ministry, which grew up out of the imprisonment of Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, Charles Colson.
We visited a prison in Mexico City holding 10,000 men, a prison where the minimum sentence is 15 years. Sections of it are run by drug cartels, the underworld power of Mexico linked in to the drug producing countries to the south. Sleeping space here is often just where you can find it . . . bathrooms and hall floors. We walked among the men without fear, many of them wanting a smile or handshake.
As we made our way through a maze of men and outdoor corridors, we heard music and singing. We walked into a chapel built by Prison Fellowship (PFI). The clean white building was constructed by inmates and paid for by PFI. Before we went in, I had seen several men trying to persuade the guards to let them into the service; but, only those who attended weekly Bible training were allowed in, and this morning for good reason, as I was soon to learn.
We were seated with the 140 inmates who were all in tan, their official garb. At the front were 25 women aged 25 to 55 in red PFI golf shirts; singing, playing instruments, and leading the men in worship songs.
I admit to some skepticism: Attractive women ministering to male inmates? Hardly the equation for unfettered spirituality. The singing progressed and then two women, kind of like a tag team, led in teaching the Lord’s Prayer. They were dynamic communicators and the men sat in attention and listened for close to 50 minutes.
Next was a liturgical mass led by a priest, during which the singers continued to lead in wonderful worship songs. During the music, some men would leave their seats and walk over to the where the priest was taking confession. I saw bodies sobbing with confessed sin as they knelt next to the priest.
After the mass the men stood up and turned around to face the back of the chapel. The 26 volunteers passed out the lunch, buns with a special spicy beef and chocolate, and drinks followed by a wonderfully rich chocolate cake.
But I wasn’t ready for what happened next. The volunteers began passing out bags and each man had his arm stamped to show he had got his. It was all carefully orchestrated and I noted that the inmates seemed to be following a learned pattern respectful of who was next to receive their packet. Then as each person was given theirs, he would move to another section of the chapel. What I couldn’t understand was why the sense of excitement in each getting theirs. I wanted to see what it was they had just been given, and what was the reason for such joy. I moved closer and could see that each bag had two rolls of toilet paper and other toiletries. They were like excited teenagers at Christmas. It seemed like something practical to get, but I wanted to know why the enormous expectation and joy? I soon learned.
In prison, each inmate has to buy their own toilet paper. Some of these guys have no family, no money and no one to visit them and provide either such amenities or money. This was better than Christmas.
I continued to watch as the volunteers ministered to the men, careful, wise and discreet. Grateful I had stuffed some tissue into my pocket that morning, I stood on the sideline watching this ministry of love and healing – as moving and real a ministry as I’ve ever seen anywhere. My emotions struggled to hold on as I saw kingdom witness being lived out in a pure and unadulterated way.
Going to those forgotten and deemed unworthy, in the name, love and authority of Jesus, brought to these men what nothing else can.
Today I write with a new kind of heart,
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance