Legacies of Leadership
Into dark halls of prison cells I saw grace spread its presence. Today in 128 countries, volunteers—Orthodox, Evangelicals and Catholics—weekly line up at prison gates to be checked in and then go in where some citizens can’t get out. These 100,000 Christian volunteers enter worlds Jesus warned us we’d likely forget.
Ron Nikkel and I visited seven prisons in Central America, meeting leaders, volunteers and boards, praying, hugging and talking with inmates, families and children. I’ve known Ron since 1972; I had recruited him from southern Alberta to move to Toronto and work with me in Youth for Christ, focusing on young offenders. His passion for justice and his evident leadership skills and vision for growth in those early days set him apart. Ten years later when Chuck Colson needed skilled hands and a tender heart to take his newly founded Prison Fellowship Ministry worldwide, Ron was chosen.
He is shy and modest. He has cared for national prison leaders since 1982, and being with him now was like watching a love-in. Rooted in this affection for him, however, is a shared and deep-seated conviction that justice is really a restoration of relationships. Not a program, not funding, not more jails. Prison Fellowship International volunteers know it well: weekly visits to forgotten citizens to bring Christ’s love and power, knitting strand by strand, and visit by visit, viable connections to bind together hearts and lives.
This is a big story with many subplots, heroes, and victims—some reclaimed but most not, some healed but many not, most hurting and some searching. Yes, it would take a book to tell it. Yet too the story is profoundly simple, so obvious you want to smack your forehead with, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Chuck Colson was Nixon’s “hatchet man” before and during Watergate. After his time in prison, he birthed Prison Fellowship. Then his bestselling book Born Again, popularized the biblical idea of being “born again” and became cultural mantra. Anyone who would listen to him heard, in effect, God didn’t chose to use my political success, academic achievements, or status as a marine, but rather my single and biggest failure. He took me from the White House to the jailhouse, and if he can do that in me, he can do that in you. Prisoners especially loved that line.
After the news spread of the start-up of Prison Fellowship in the USA, requests poured in from around the world, and this is where Ron entered. He traveled the world, helping national leaders with a heart for those in prison to build an indigenous work. PFI didn’t offer money; each national ministry was to be self-funded, self-developed and self-led. That remains one of its core operational values.
When we visited Prentivo Prison in Guatemala, Father Gonzalo said, “Brian, I’d like for you to meet Father Mario.” Dressed in street clothes, I wanted to know more about this Father Mario. Some years ago, ordained a priest, one night another priest – living in the same center – was killed, and because Mario was in the area, he was charged and convicted, even without evidence. He spent fourteen years in this very prison. As we walked about, he talked to many he knew by name. His calling now? To visit daily the place where he spent almost a decade and a half. Joy radiates and laughter rings out. He is now “Padre Mario.”
In Costa Rica we saw a remarkable program (APAC) run by PFI. Frisked and passport confiscated, we walked through the gates of the San Rafael prison. Instead of continuing into the main prison, we took a sharp right, following a path around the fence perimeter. A few minutes later to my left I saw a separate section, fenced off from the main prison, with fields of vegetables and flowers. What really surprised me was seeing eighty men divided in parallel line waiting for us to run the gauntlet. There were high-fives, handshakes and hugs (especially for Ron) as we moved into the center area, under open-sided tents for morning chapel. The music rocked. Traditional rocked hymns and quiet songs are not their fare. This sectioned off part of the prison is called an APAC.
Beginning in Brazil in 1972 in partnership with local prisons, PFI created these faith-based units: APAC – in Portuguese “Loving Christ, Loving the Prisoner.” These units are for inmates who want to explore and grow in their faith. After significant training they are allowed to leave the main prison and live in an APAC. Designed to encourage spiritual growth, develop social skills and prepare them for reentry, they are built within existing prisons but – and this is important – are separate and self-contained. All internal activities are run by PFI with only external security. In the San Rafael APCA of 81 inmates, there was one guard. There are 90 of these APAC units in Brazil caring for some 13,500 inmates; in Chile there are 40 with 4,000 offenders.
Later I was proudly shown the woodworking shop and then the vegetable garden. I noticed a netted area so I lifted the net and entered into what I learned was a marioposiaro—a jungle butterfly garden. Its guardian showed me various stages of their growth and their many varieties. It was so fitting that next door to the state institution, these men in finding grace and love in Jesus discover his beautiful creation . . . men we might never think would lovingly touch the tender wings of butterflies and learn the true elements of God’s good earth.
What value prison?
So what is a traditional prison for Ron Nikkel? It is the point of deepest failure. It’s a human intersection where personal moral failure meets societal failure, where society shows its inability to change fallen character. Why did Jesus point out visiting prison as a demarcation between the sheep and goats? Because here the need to work with his creation, from the inside out, is not only self-evident but also possible because here sinners know what they are. Now it’s a matter of helping lift burdens, acting as spiritual midwives in the process of new birth. Prison is where bonding relationships can restore victim and victimizer and help to bring about shalom, God’s peace.
For Ron, traditional prisons just don’t make sense, provide no lasting answers. They’ve become easy-solution warehouses, packing in more and more where there is less and less interaction between those who could help and those who need help.
“They put people with a moral infection into a place where moral disease is rampant and then expect them to be cured. It is irresponsible to put offenders in places where their choice to be responsible is taken away, because in prison all responsibility is removed, replaced by do’s and don’ts, rigid time schedule with no allowance for initiative. They just expect the inmates to do their time.
“Except for those who are a real and present danger to society (less than 20 percent), we will not break the back of a judicial log jam until we see that men and women need to be restored in relationships.”
Yet in the manifest imperfection of prisons, lights shine. I saw people located in the darkest of concrete and steel bunkers radiate Christ’s love. Where hopelessness reigns, expectation of life ahead simply defied my imagination.
Do you wonder if Jesus is alive? Has cynicism about God’s work blinded you? Have religious self-promoters made you wonder if there are still true Christians serving with love? Take a trip with Ron Nikkel. In the darkness light shines its best.
Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador
World Evangelical Alliance