Whenever I go into a jail or prison I am changed. This past June a missionary friend invited me to lead Bible studies in a prison and jail in Pemba, Mozambique. She had begun visiting inmates some eight months before and was passionately engaged—and I soon saw for myself why.
We first visited a prison in Mieze and led a Bible study on the parable of the lost sheep to some 100 inmates. The men sat three abreast in a deep, narrow corridor lined with cell blocks that divided the prison in half. We stood in the same corridor a few steps above. After an opening prayer and introductions we sang a few worship songs together in Portuguese.
We sat down to place ourselves closer to the people’s level and a volunteer read in Portuguese Luke 15:1-2, which was then translated into the local language Makua.
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to him to listen to him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
I gave a quick summary of the characters, telling how tax collectors were viewed as thieves, and asked the men if any of them knew any thieves. Everyone laughed as they looked around at each other. “Jesus was a friend of thieves and sinners. All of the thieves and sinners came to him to listen to him,” I continued. “Where would Jesus find thieves and sinners in Mozambique?” I asked. “Right here! responded some of the men” – and there we were to re-experience thousands of years later the same Good News.
I suggested that thieves and bad people must have felt his love and total acceptance. The law-abiding people criticized him for hanging out with criminals, so he told them a story. Though it was far from an ideal place to act out this parable, I asked for a smaller, light weight volunteer to be a sheep and a stronger bigger volunteer to be a shepherd and found willing actors in a flash.
Men read the parable of the lost sheep in Portuguese and Makua and I then asked the man playing the sheep to go as far as he could away from the others into the depths of the corridor. He found his way back there and waited. I then asked the men how people end up getting lost, getting into trouble. People mentioned drinking, steeling, poverty, drugs, rape and other things. Then I sent the man playing the shepherd to go find the sheep, place him on his shoulders and bring him back, inviting the rest of us to his house for a big celebration.
The stronger man went and lifted him on his shoulders while the other inmates clapped and cheered. Once back I asked the inmates and the man playing the sheep what he was doing when the shepherd found him? The men seemed delighted to see that the sheep wasn’t doing anything, just being lost. The shepherd came looking for him, “until he found him!”
“What did the shepherd do when he found him?” I asked. “Did he yell at him, beat him, or sentence him to prison time?” Acting out the story made the answer obvious. The shepherd found him, rejoiced and carried him back, inviting all his friends to a big welcome party in his honor. There’s even a big party in heaven over a sinner who is found/repents!
“How many of you would like to be found, brought home into God’s house and celebrated?” I asked. I told the men like I have many times in Skagit County Jail that Jesus is looking for them and will not give up until he finds them. “But you can give him permission to find you sooner rather than later if you’d like,” I offer. “If you are interested in being found now, I invite you to welcome Jesus into your life and surrender to his love.”
At this invitation there’s was a massive response. I could see that people were very moved as they prayed in Portuguese or Makua to give their lives over to Jesus. We then offered to pray lay hands on each man to bless them and pray for physical healing. My missionary friend, the Mozambican interpreter and the four or five other outside ministry team people and I spent the next forty five minutes or so praying for every inmate.
I was moved to see how nearly every man had scars on their arms, faces and legs from knife or gunshot wounds. I went and prayed for men who were laying sick in their beds in some of the cells together with a Mozambican pastor. We left warmed to the core by God’s love reflected towards us from these open, desperate Mozambican men.
A few days later our missionary friend took my son Isaac and I and some other Iris School of Ministry students to the Pemba city jail where I led another Bible study. The jail was much dirtier and bleaker then the prison, with inmates crowded in a yard guarded by AK-47-bearing women and men guards. While the majority of inmates where Mozambican, we met men from Kenya and other African countries, and there were 15 or so Bangladeshi men squatting together in their own little alcove. A line of women inmates leaned against a wall listening in as a Mozambican pastor led worship and began to interpret my Bible study.
In this jail like in many jails and prisons in poor countries around the world, food was a meager serving of rice and people slept on a cement floor and had to relieve themselves in an uncovered hole in the ground. After a Bible study we passed out small loaves of bread to the famished inmates, prayed for people’s healing, and saw many people get visible relief. I prayed for one older man who had open sores covering his entire body—allowing me only a small patch on the top of one of his bare feet to place two fingers.
Before leaving I talked with the Bangladeshi inmates. They had been picked up trying to cross Mozambique illegally from Tanzania en route to South Africa. They said they’d been there four months without an attorney visit and knew nothing about how to get released.
A younger man wanted prayer for his arm, which he couldn’t straighten out and pained him greatly after a fall. I gently held his swollen elbow and prayed for Jesus to heal him. As I prayed I asked him to begin to try to move his arm. At first he winced and couldn’t straighten it. Little by little as we continued to pray he was able to completely bend and fully straighten his arm. Astonishment then joy came over his face.
“My friend wants you to know that he thinks you are magnificent!” said the interpreter. I insisted that this was Jesus’ doing as the entire group of Bangladeshi’s and Indian men looked on. We prayed for God to act on their behalf, liberating them from the jail.
The next day I met an influential Muslim businessman whose family were originally from India who has befriended Heidi and Rolland Baker. He agreed to meet with Isaac and me to talk about advocating for the Bangladeshi inmates release. While I never confirmed that he was able to get them released, I could see that advocacy must accompany proclamation both here, in Mozambique and everywhere else where I have done jail ministry.
Since our return I have often remembered these poor prisoners and prayed for them, and also for our missionary friend, the Bakers, and Iris Ministries’ many missionaries and Mozambican pastors. Please pray for them, and for God’s wisdom and direction for Gracie and I too as we discern our role in equipping the body of Christ for ministry to people on the margins.
In the last few days I have received invitations to return to Mozambique next summer to teach Mozambican leaders and possibly prison chaplains; and to Bordeaux, France to train French jail chaplains.
Meanwhile in our own local jail officials have just told us we can no longer lay hands on inmates or offer services with more than two of us ministering. Please pray for at Tierra Nueva as we continue to share God’s amazing love in Jesus to men, women and juvenile offenders here in Skagit County. Pray for doors to open again for us to minister more freely, advocate more effectively and see prisoners find spiritual and physical freedom.