Before and After
The Somoza family, a hereditary dictatorship, ruled Nicaragua for forty-three years. During the 1970s the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, rebelled against the Somozas and finally deposed them in 1979. The Contras then attempted to unseat the Sandinistas but lost; some 30,000 died during this conflict.
Nicaragua is the largest of the Central American countries, with Honduras on the north and Costa Rica to the south, just north of the Equator. On the west is the Pacific Ocean and to the east is the Caribbean Sea. The population is 6 million. The religion is 96 percent Christian (Roman Catholics 70 percent, Evangelical/Protestant 29 percent).
Dorestela Medina Mendieta was a revolutionary even before she joined Ortega’s revolution in 1973. While in seventh grade, she was already writing letters and organizing protests against the Somoza dictatorship. Her mother sent her on a student exchange program to the United States, hoping this would clear her daughter’s head of this revolutionary nonsense. But after she returned, at eighteen she left home and joined Ortega’s forces. This young radical, steamed by the abuses of a dictatorship, was charmed by the ideas and personality of Daniel Ortega. It was heady days for young radicals. For a time the U.S. President Carter supported him until he learned that Ortega was helping to arm the Salvadorian rebels.
In 1979 when Ortega’s Sandinistas took power, his new government called on the young revolutionary Dorestela to be part of the leadership team. She was appointed subdirector of Immigration. Traveling back and forth to Cuba, she relied on Russia, Cuba and Germany to help put an immigration system in place. Fighting broke out again as the U.S. turned to support the Contras fighting out of Honduras.
Now ranked fourth in the army, she was called to fire up the Nicaraguan troops as they moved to protect her government. Later she was put in charge of running the prisons and combatting charges leveled against the Sandinistas about human rights abuses.
In 1995 after her soldier-husband had died, she had had enough and left her government position. After working for various embassies, and struggling with a restless and peace-vacant heart, even testing “new age” variations, she finally said yes to an invitation to attend a spiritual retreat. For three days they were taken through the passion of Jesus, his death and resurrection. She told me, “Brian, I cried the entire three days. Jesus touched my heart. When I faced who Jesus was and why he came, I knew then I could follow him. I felt much like the women in the New Testament who poured perfume on the feet of Jesus even though those around criticized. I heard him say, ‘Dorestela, I am your peace. I care for you. I will give you hope.’ It was then my life was changed.
“My friends and even my brother said, ‘Oh, you are now like St. Paul. You fought Jesus and now you are loving him.’”
Where was the connection between her conversion and her current vocation? I wondered. It’s not surprising, for the past becomes foundational for the future.
After her conversion she asked, “Lord, what can I do for you now?” The response that she heard was, “Take care of my children.” But that made no sense. She had children, her family, but surely that wasn’t what was meant.
For two weeks she prayed and stewed about the message. Suddenly it dawned on her. “Of course. He wanted me to take care of those who as minister I was in charge of, but with a different feeling and attitude. Prisoners.”
“So what were your feelings about them when you were minister?” I queried. Her head dropped. “I had no feelings for them then. In fact, I had an uncle and cousin in prison who had been there ten years. I never once visited them, didn’t even bring them a toothbrush.”
Knowing it wouldn’t be easy to show up visiting prisoners as the former minister of prisons, she joined Prison Fellowship as a volunteer. At first prison officials wondered what was going on. What kind of trick might she be playing on them? They didn’t buy her story about a spiritual transformation. But, in time, week by week, as she faithfully cared for those in prison, she built confidence in herself and trust among the guards, prison officials and inmates.
Today Dorestela is regional director of Prison Fellowship International for Latin America, overseeing its ministry. How did this revolutionary spirit, entangled in throwing bombs and robbing banks end up here? This is yet another story of Spirit-intruding grace, catching a heart passionate about values and truth, transforming and shaping it to love and serve those she had earlier despised.
During our visit, we walked with Dorestela and Monseigneur Pena, head of the country’s PF into La Modelo Prison in Managua. Before we got through the gate, loud, drum/bongo driven Gospel music filled the air. The service was in full swing. The band of rhythm and bass guitar, drums, bongo and a creative keyboard were pumping out their best. Latin music is wonderfully different. Then came three sermons—they were in no hurry. Father Pena, who could put the best of Pentecostal preachers to shame, offered the grace only Jesus gives. Ron Nikkel (who founded some 127 Prison Fellowships worldwide) and I did our best to match his passion. No one wanted the service to end, until a guard walked in with a nod.
Through Latin America, Dorestela oversees some 16 countries with 6,700 volunteers working in many of 2,500 prisons in the region, holding some 1.2 million prisoners. From a revolutionary teenager, loathing brutal overlords, to being cabinet minister in a new government, young as she was, in time her restless heart wasn’t at rest until it found solace in her living Lord.
As we see conflict breaking up countries, putting one at war with another, we pray, knowing the Spirit is there, in the middle of difficulty, anger and revenge. His eye on that one or two he can and will use in the future. There is no place he is not present. Praying for his incursion into such hearts is our cherished privilege and mandated action.
There is no heart, regardless of its antipathy, resentment or flat out brutality from which God is absent.
Brian C. Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance