John 15:13 No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
There are many ways to lay down your life for others. Two weeks ago when we were finally able to visit MCI-J, our first prison for prison ministry, again after being locked out for almost two months, we learned the story of an inmate who put himself in harm’s way for our sake and the sake of a respectful environment.
Some background to help you better see into this story:
A number of young men from ChristLife Young Adults (CLYA) have been visiting the imprisoned at Maryland Correctional Institution – Jessup (MCI-J) for about a year and five months now. We go on the first and fourth Saturdays of each month to show the men that there is someone out there who cares, to talk with them and treat them with the dignity they deserve, and to grow in faith in Jesus Christ with them. The time we are allowed to visit is on Saturday nights; it speaks loudly to the inmates that young men ages 18-35 are willing to spend time behind bars with them rather than out doing the things most young men are doing on weekends. When we go into the prisons, we are directed to the chapel buildings, and the inmates who want to join us and have been approved are allowed to go to chapel.
The toughest barrier we face when going into the prisons is gang influence – in our case, the Hispanic gangs especially. Lots of men upon entering prison immediately get pressured into joining gangs based on race. Once you’re in a gang, there’s no easy way of getting out. Being the coordinator of our ministry, which is titled Built on Rock (the name doubly inspired by Matthew 7:24 and 16:18), the fruitless struggle of ministering to the gang members was a constant stressor that yielded no answers for me as I prayed to God about how to reach them: For months we would have Hispanic gang members showing up during chapel not to talk about a relationship with Jesus, our intention, but instead to talk about whatever gang drama they were involved in at that time. Being Hispanic and familiar with Catholicism, they would sign up for the Catholic chapel, but would be rude and disruptive toward the men who really wanted to be there. This problem was not contained to our ministry, but spilled over into other chapel times and even the communion service – the closest thing to mass the Catholic inmates receive in prison – on Tuesdays.
Not all of the Hispanics are in a gang. One of the most gear-grinding practices the gang members would employ was pretending not to speak English as well as they could. So, to try to meet them where they were, two of us tried to learn Spanish. We tried bringing in Spanish media to help them be more involved. We would regularly break into separate English and Spanish small groups. We tried to speak Spanish with them, which was very difficult because the Spanish speakers spoke very fast with accents from many different countries, and we lack the religious and emotional vocabulary to express ourselves well. I refused to let them miss an opportunity to draw closer to Christ, who was beaten, marred, insulted, humiliated, stripped naked, and crucified for their sake. The gang members were frustrated; we were frustrated; the inmates who really wanted to be there were frustrated.
Now for the good part:
The last time we visited before MCI-J had its lengthy lockdown, where no visitors are allowed in, as we were leaving the prison, one of the gang members had had enough of us cocky young men telling him what God wants in lousy Spanish. Surrounded by witnesses of all races, He started making fun of us and talking obscenely about us in Spanish although we were out of earshot, and one of the Hispanics not in a gang, Raphael (his real name will be kept in confidence), had had enough of him. Rebuking him despite the fact that the gang members present might react (now or at a later time), Raphael replied, “Hey, this is an environment of respect! Those men give their time to be here with us! I demand that you respect them!” The one he rebuked responded by taking a swing at him, hitting him in the face, and then running away. Unafraid, Raphael called him back, but the guards stepped in and immediately ended the whole confrontation. Raphael was bold – although there could have been terrible retribution, he was willing to lay down his life for us.
Although there had been many witnesses, the guards at the prisons are not very forgiving. Raphael spent 30 days on personal lockdown, unable to leave his cell, for his involvement in the scuffle. He said he didn’t mind one bit – he was flooded with joy knowing that he stood up for us. This straw plus a few more shortly after finally broke the camel’s back: The chaplain, although he had long tried to be loving and helpful, removed all Hispanic gang members from the approval list. When we re-entered the prison two months later (recall that a long lockdown due to drug problems and a gang murder happened in between), we found ourselves blessed to meet with the men who genuinely want to know the Lord in a deeper way, and no distractions. Although I felt bad that the gang members finally had to be disallowed, in my opinion it was the best night of ministry we ever had at MCI-J, with profound bonding as Raphael, alive and well, shared his story and together, inmates and visitors shared their hearts. On top of that, Mike laid down the most – please forgive my prison language here – badass teaching on Genesis 22 that you’ve ever heard. I see more great times of ministry ahead. Praise God for bearing us through that desert, and for the love of our brother, Raphael.
Romans 8:28 We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.