A beautiful moment in an awful place
Prisons are scary, dreary, frightfully cold, smelling of disinfective, noisy and confusing.
After signing in, giving up passports, frisked, and checked over, we walked through a maze of corridors, topped with rolls of razor sharp fencing. We would be in two places: the open block Section 8 and maximum security cell block Section 7.
Prisoners crowded around. Hugs and hand shapes greeted us all. Roberto – leader of our visiting team, theology professor and chair of Mexico Prison Fellowship was a welcomed sight. I was an unknown, but that was ok, they wanted my handshake too. I mumbled in fumbling Spanish then resorted to “Hi.”
Around a corner, an open space, and tied to a 20-foot cement wall was a tent like overhang and a small table covered with white linen. A candle and crucifix adorned the table: the center of our coming service. Over in the corner inmates were in turn, puffing on a crack pipe.
Handsome and muscular Edgar took my hand. His eyes sparkled while his hug confirmed his welcome. Chair of the weekly worship service, he was energized by his assignment. We stood, singing and praying with about 25 inmates circling the small sacred space, a space as sacred and hallowed as one could imagine.
Christmas was coming, and the prison would hold a celebration. Edgar and his committee had put together a play on the birth of Jesus, using prison humor to give it spice. When a male dressed as Mary, large with child, walked into the scene, the men hooted.
When the service concluded we moved on to section 7, the maximum security cell block. We crossed an open area with plants and flowers growing from sections between concrete. The gardener, now a believer, got his hugs: he was in for life – 120 years for killing 4 men, although he confessed it was really 15 – then up stairs. In front was a caged off area divided in two sections. To the left in a space about 7 by 100 feet were some 80 inmates milling about. On the right were the cells, bars dividing the walk-about area from where the men lived, five in a cell. Gates opened and we entered, brushing up against cells, moving in and around the men. I was a stranger but I was with people they met every week.
To my right I saw five men peering out through bars. They smiled, stuck their hands out for a handshake. An inmate pointed to one of his four cellmates: “He killed four.” I turned and saw a smile and outstretched hand. The rule here is that if one has a visitor (a wife or girl friend) the other four leave, pull a curtain over the cell opening and mingle in the open, crowded space. It was here we moved, getting hugs, answering questions. Caged in with men in maximum security, some doing 120 years for multiple killings, I looked around for a guard but there was none.
Then I saw Piedad, dressed in her red PFI golf shirt, face up against bars, praying with an inmate. She is an Eucharistic minister, trained by the church to offer consecrated communion wafers to believers. Fearless, she comes every week, and every day during Holy Week. Praying and ministering to those deemed too dangerous to be let out into the main prison, she has found her calling.
As we left, just outside the cells was a wooden case, much like an altar or shrine erected for the Virgin Mary. This one was different. We peered in expecting to see figurines to the mother of Jesus. Not here. Crowded into the cabinet were death figurines dedicated to Santa Muerte, the Angel of Death, a cult formed in Mexico, commanding an enormous following. A reminder, that the spirit of darkness finds its resting place where darkness is the prevailing idiom and reality.
As we returned to the main prison two impressive, smiling young brothers gave hugs of welcome. Victor and Julio, both in for 120 years for armed robberies, were locked in section 7 for ten years, never once been out. In time they came to Christ, their conversion was so transformative, they were moved from maximum security into the main section, possibly for the rest of their lives. Yet joy radiate from them. No complaints, no asking for privileges. Just wanting to be loved and to love. Ironically one was wearing a Wheaton College T-shirt (a Christian university in Illinois, USA). He knew nothing of the school.
Prison is a desert of spiritual and human emptiness. People dry up, from the inside out. Hopelessness rules, bleeding hearts cauterized by time. Dignity cut off at the legs, men and women see themselves as the prison system sees them – as nothings. Relationships slowly drift and then lose any strand of connection, as those outside fatigue of frequent visits, raising kids and paying bills alone, or finding solace or friendship in another.
But in this bleak desert roses bloom. Piedad, boldly going into cellblocks of violent men, absent guards, holding men in prayer, she transforms the landscape. Edgar, eyes filtering peace and joy from his inner self, makes no apology to his colleagues as to where he stands for Christ. Victor and Julio, still each facing 100 years, are strong in their love for Christ, knowing that they too are loved by the Father.
While these flashes of color and wafts of sweet scent mitigate bleak, lonely, smelly prison spaces, millions are in prison, some not far from where we live. It is in those places, the Spirit is not vacant. He works among people deemed untouchable and too often forgotten.
Jesus said it this way….I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Prisoners, most of them guilty, some not, are all created “in his image.” They are loved by the One who calls on us to be the expression of that love.
A beautiful moment in an awful place.
Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador
World Evangelical Alliance