Saturday, November 14, 2009

Going to Prison

**This is a continuation from yesterday's post. I left off beginning to share the story of my time in Cape Town, South Africa working with a prison ministry team. **

I spent a couple of months in Cape Town, South Africa in the summer of 2003 with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. We had the unique opportunity to work alongside of a prison ministry team there, and much to my surprise, God used that time more to heal my own heart than anything else at all. He's funny like that.

My first day in the prison was so much harder than I imagined it would be. We walked through the corridors where men spent their days and nights, witnessed the overcrowding and deplorable circumstances. We met with the ministry staff who worked there full-time and heard copious stories of the inmates, their backgrounds, and the crimes that landed them in their cells. We heard of everything from petty theft, to grand larceny, drug trafficking, to rape and murder, with everything in between. At the end of the day, we were given some free time to meditate on all that we had seen and cry out to God about what we would have us do there.

I can recall vividly hitting my knees at the end of that day, weeping before my God, asking over and over again, "Why am I here? Why did you bring me here?" I was no better than any of the people I had met that day, and somehow, I managed to escape the punishment of my crimes. I could think of all the times that I broke the law, I could picture the depravity of my life before Christ saved me, and I knew that I deserved the sentence that some of them were living out. So now, what could I possibly say? What could I possibly bring to this place, all the while knowing that at the end of the day, these men would was back into their tiny prison cells to pass the night, and I would leave the walls that confined them behind me and return to a soft bed and warm meal. I wept for the mercy that God had so freely offered, the forgiveness outweighing the heinous crime itself.

God is so faithful, though, and His plan is so perfectly divine.

As we began to spend our days at the prison, we as a team fell into a rhythm of sorts. We would spend the first part of our morning with the prisoners in a large group, and then from there we would break up into smaller groups, each of us on the team meeting with only a few prisoners at a time. My first day there, after the large group time, a young muslim man made a b-line for me and abruptly and curtly said, "Do you want to talk to me?"

My terrified response was, "Of course I do." So he pulled up two chairs facing each other and invited me to sit, which I promptly did. He then revealed a postcard that he carried around with him in his back pocket. That postcard had signatures on it from people all over the world. It was tattered and worn on the edges. Every signature was in a different color ink with a location, city and country, written below it. If I had to guess, there were well over 20 signatures littered across the card.

As he was proudly displaying his card, he began to tell me that the signatures were from missionaries whom had come from all over the world while he was there in prison. Each had met with him, shared the gospel with him, and then asked him for a decision for Christ. He goes on to tell me that he has grown up as a muslim, and islam is his very life. A decision for Christ would lead to death for him. So he wanted to know from me why He should make a decision that would land him dead.

Oh mercy, I assure you I am not smart enough for such questions as that. I was a babe in Christ myself, and certainly had never had to weigh out death with my decision to follow Christ. I was praising God that his question had come at the very end of our time together, as I had nothing to offer such a serious challenge. Just a few weeks prior to leaving for South Africa, I had taken a brief storytelling course that taught about letting the words of Scripture itself do the teaching to people, and I had taken away a list of possible application stories to share with people as particular needs arose. I'm sure that I completely missed the point of the training and was not using the list of stories in the manner that it had been intended, but I whipped out that list, scanned it quickly, and picked one in a seemingly random manner.

I offered to this young Muslim the story of Zacchaeus, the thief who waited in a tree for Jesus to pass. If you are not familiar that short story, you can find it here. I don't know why I chose that story, other than it was the only one I really recognized as I scanned the list in desperation. I asked him to read the story overnight and then we could talk about it the next day when we returned. Oh, did I ever want to scoot out of there quickly. I felt silly, useless, ill-equipped. I had been put on the spot and felt like a total failure. If I had a tail to tuck, it most definitely would have been between my legs as we walked out of there that day. I was dreading having to return the next day...

Stay tuned. I'm on a roll...

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Thoughts? Feel welcome to share...