Amid all the bleak news about America’s racial divide, I came across a remarkable video on a spiritual awakening in the largest maximum-security prison in the country.  The documentary, produced by The Atlantic magazine, takes thirteen minutes to watch, and I hope you do so.  (Click on this LINK and look for the large white “Play” button.)  It reminded me that God’s work can thrive in the most unlikely places.

For several decades I’ve supported Prison Fellowship International, founded by Chuck Colson, which now has branches in 120 countries.  Its 45,000 volunteers provide down-to-earth services, such as supplying poor inmates with food and medicine, and educating the children of incarcerated mothers.  In several countries the government has actually asked PFI to take over the management of prisons.

As a journalist, I’ve seen the work of PFI firsthand.  Not long after the fall of Communism in Russia, I attended two Sunday services in the monastery town of Zagorsk.  The first took place in a cathedral within the grounds of the monastery, which is celebrated as the richest jewel of the Russian Orthodox Church.  I sat before a wall covered with gold and inset with icons, listening to a 150-voice choir composed entirely of young monks in training.  The air hummed with the throaty, bass-clef harmony of the Russian liturgy, a sound that seemed to come from under the floor.

An hour later I found myself in the basement of a dungeon built in 1832.  We had passed through four steel gates to reach the prisoner’s cells on the bottom level, the stench growing worse with each step.  In cells smaller than my bedroom, eight teenage boys lived, two to a bed.  A ceramic-lined hole in the ground served as both toilet and “shower,” although the only water came from a cold-water spigot an arm’s length away.  There were no board games, no television sets, no diversions of any kind.  All day every day for a year, two years, maybe five, these boys had nothing to do but lie on their beds or pace around the room.  For security purposes, the Zagorsk prison enforces a 24-hour lockdown.

During the last years of the crumbling Soviet Union, priests from the monastery had donated enough bread and vegetables to feed the prisoners throughout the winter.  As a result, the warden, a dedicated communist, authorized them to build a chapel in the prison basement—a bold act for a communist functionary in the atheistic state of those days. 

Located on the lowest subterranean level, the chapel was an oasis of beauty in an otherwise grim place.  After the prisoners had cleaned out a seventy-year accumulation of filth from an old storeroom, the monks installed a marble floor and mounted finely wrought candle sconces on the walls.  The inmates took pride in their handiwork which, they said, was the only prison chapel in all of Russia.  Each week priests traveled from the monastery to conduct a service there, and for this occasion prisoners were allowed out of their cells, which guaranteed excellent attendance.  One of the monks pointed to the icon for the prison chapel: “Our Lady Who Takes Away Sadness.”

On another trip I visited PFI’s work in Peru and Chile. In contrast to the formality of Russian Orthodoxy, the church service here had a distinctly Latin and Pentecostal flavor. A worship band comprised eighteen guitarists, one accordionist, and two men wielding handmade brass tambourines. The congregation, 150 strong, lustily joined in, with some inmates raising their hands above their heads and some apparently competing in a highest-decibel contest.  The meeting room was overflowing, and extra faces peered in all the windows. I looked around at the congregation: all men, wearing a ragtag assortment of handed-down street clothes. A shocking number of their faces were marked with scars.

One of the band members, a short, wiry man with a thick scar running across his left cheek, spoke first. “They used to think I was so dangerous that they kept me in chains.  And I’ll tell you why I first started going to prison church—I was looking for an escape hole!”  Everyone laughed, even the guards.  “But there I found true freedom in Christ, not just a way to escape.”

Another prisoner limped to the front.  He explained that he had lost a leg and most of his bowels in a shooting incident in an Argentine prison.  He became a Christian behind bars.  Later, he confronted the man who had killed his brother.  “Before, I would have killed that man,” he says.  “But with God’s help I was able to forgive him.  Now I know I am called to preach to the others here in prison.  It’s a more important job than being President of General Motors.  And with thirty-four years to go on my sentence, I’ll have plenty of time!”

We stayed for at least two hours, with the service still gathering emotional steam.  Prisoners spontaneously knelt by the rough wooden benches to pray for their fellow inmates.  The singing, animated with hand-clapping and foot-stomping, grew louder and more boisterous.  Other prisoners abandoned their basketball games and crowded around the open doorway to see what they were missing.  When I and the other foreign visitors left, amid many hugs and handshakes, all the prisoners stayed.  They were just getting warmed up.

On the way back to our hotel, Ron Nikkel, then president of Prison Fellowship International, reflected on our day. “It never fails to get to me, no matter how many prisons I visit,” he said.  “To see human beings in such miserable conditions, and yet praising God. In their faces you can see a joy and love like I’ve encountered nowhere else. I wish some of the dispirited Christians back in North America could travel with me and see the difference Christ can make in a person’s life.  God chooses the weak and foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the mighty.”

Ironically, Ron sees the failure of penal systems around the world as a boon for ministry. “Marxists fail at their prisons, as do Muslims, Hindus, and secular humanists.  Nothing works.  Societies shut prisoners out of sight because they’re an embarrassment, an admission of failure. But they let prison ministries in, figuring we can’t worsen an already hopeless situation.  And there, behind those bars in the least likely of all places, the church of God takes shape.  In South Africa one brave couple started a series of Bible studies in the most violent prison in Africa. Within a year the annual incidence of violent attacks in that prison dropped from 279 to two.  Wardens notice results like that.

COL_045_HI“It’s a New Testament church in its purest form. Chile, for example, has five thousand different denominations and church groups.  But in Chilean prisons, the Christians are one. Prison abolishes all the normal distinctions of denomination and race and class. I can’t give details on some of the most exciting frontiers.  I can only say that in societies so closed that they apply the death penalty for a conversion to Christianity, prisons are opening doors to us.  Nothing else has worked in those prisons, so in desperation they turn to the Christians.”

Ron pointed out that prison ministry is especially strategic in authoritarian countries, where potential leaders may be serving time right now.  After South Africa’s changeover from the apartheid regime, a majority of the new cabinet had prison records.  Think of Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benigno Aquino, Martin Luther King Jr.  Annealed by their experience behind bars, each emerged with moral authority and an iron determination for justice.

Prison need not be a dead end of despair.  One of the Bible’s most inspiring stories tells of Joseph, falsely accused and persecuted, who later rose to become the second most powerful person in the known world.  The prophets Daniel and Jeremiah spent time in prison, and the apostle Paul wrote some of his most powerful letters there.

The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We lock in drug offenders with murderers and thieves, creating a perfect breeding ground for ever more crime.  Thirty-seven states have a higher rate of incarceration than any other country—including places like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.

The state of Louisiana wins the dubious prize of the world’s prison capital, imprisoning more of its people, per head, than any place on earth. It seems an endless cycle of despair—until something happens such as what caught The Atlantic’s attention at Angola Prison in Louisiana. There, as in the other prisons I have visited, wise leaders and ordinary volunteers are bringing a message of hope to a very dark place. “In desperation they turn to the Christians,” as Ron Nikkel said. And light breaks out.

BRZ_001_HIEven today, Jesus the former prisoner makes his home behind bars.  “I was in prison and you came to visit me,” he said in one of his best known parables (Matthew 25).

“When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

And the King replied, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

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8 responses to “Hope in the Dark”

  1. Juvelyn Lumberio says:

    Hi Philip!

    I just want to ask something…

    Some woman who’s husband just died in the hospital said..
    “How can I love a God who took away the one I love?”

    I’m thinking, as Christians, how can we answers questions like this?

    Thank you and I hope I get to hear from you.
    God bless.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      That’s an excellent question, and I’ve written three book circling around the question, most recently The Question That Never Goes Away. The best clue is to look at how Jesus responds to those who are suffering or have experienced loss. He never lectures, implies that “God took them away,” or even proposes theological answers. Rather, he responds with compassion and healing. That surely does not answer the question, but it shows that God is on the side of the one suffering, not the one causing the suffering. I wrote about this more directly in Where Is God When It Hurts. I’m glad you care enough to want to support your friend. –Philip

  2. Jill McKechnue says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful, inspiring story about the prison in Angola and the work of prison fellowship int’l. around the world. I was just wondering recently if the ministry Chuck Colson started was still going strong, and I’m glad to hear that it is.

  3. Tony G. says:

    Western culture as a whole has totally forgotten what the word redemption really means. We hear it mostly in sports, but we can’t actually redeem ourselves and it goes so much deeper than that. To be redeemed you have to have someone who is willing to sacrifice money, time, gifts and talents, social standing, and even their jobs. And they gladly do it…for you. Your redeemer sees you as someone that is worth sacrificing for because they see the unique possibly that is you.
    Every time I listen to someone’s story, or read (or in this case see a video) about someone that have gone through horrible and horrific circumstances and there has been a person who is willing to sacrifice, ready to pay a price for you, I can’t help but think that God’s favorite word is redemption. Someday I might write a book with that title, “God’s Favorite Word is Redemption”. It would have a little theological foundation, but it would mostly be people stories.
    In my mind I heard that word again; REDEMPTION when watching the video that you linked to. When I hear it in my mind there are times it sounds like a soft and warm piece of classical music (something like Henryk Grecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) and other times it rings more like heavy metal music (maybe something like Guns and Roses or Ozzy). Either way redemption is a story, that like a piece of music, is written on people’s hearts and just waiting to be sung.

  4. Phyllis says:

    Hi – this comment is not exactly connected to the above post, however I couldn’t find anywhere else to ask this question about What’s so Amazing about Grace? which I began reading today. If God will forgive and extend grace to everyone from the murderer to the rapist to the sex trafficker (and me and you), you mean to say He draws the line and will not extend grace to my husband (or me or you) for not forgiving a friend? The whole book is about how God gives His gift of grace to ALL for all sin and evil. Why is this sin excluded? Thanks.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      That’s an excellent question. All I can say is that numerous times in the Gospels (including the Lord’s Prayer), Jesus links our willingness to forgive others to God’s forgiveness of us. Jesus doesn’t explicitly answer your question, but I take it as a solemn reminder of how important it is that we follow God’s example in forgiving the undeserving. Perhaps you’ll find more clarity in the rest of the book.
      –Philip

  5. Lisa Erwin says:

    My husband has been out just over five years after serving 33 years hard time. He recently fully committed his life to Christ. Amazing, and what a story of hope we tell wherever we go.

  6. Alex says:

    Thank you. I have just finished watching the video, and reading the post. So inspiring. We have just returned from remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia, where there are similar issues to those in the US (Indigenous incarceration rates are 15 times higher than non-Indigenous). I really appreciated this comment. –
    America would not be the world capital of incarceration if it could figure out a way to intervene in the lives of young men before they commit acts of violence, rather than after. “We had to have a victim to send them here and get them prepared to go back into society and be successful. God help us, somebody has to be hurt, murdered or killed before we will recognize the problem we have and go back and fix it.”

    I’m very thankful for your writing and look forward to reading your blog each month. Thank you, and God Bless you.

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