Reading the Bible with the Damned
Bob Ekblad of Tierra Nueva recounts a visit to Guatemala to train servants of the poor and to minister to gang members in violent prisons. A few days before leaving, he dreamed of a gangster covered with tattoos and with a hole in his side. He was learning about walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, and he wondered if this dream was related to his upcoming trip.
Ekblad and a team of four other men passed guards armed with machine guns to enter a Guatemalan jail.
"It's a chaotic environment," Ekblad comments, with some inmates smoking marijuana, answering cell phones, arguing, or sleeping with prostitutes—distractions with which the team competed while inviting the men to a Bible study. Ekblad has compassion for these men, many of whom come from Christian homes but lost fathers in the war of the 1980s and subsequently joined gangs and began selling drugs.
"Gangs run the prison from the inside," Ekblad says. Gangsters may kill fellow members who become Christians, because they see conversion as joining a rival gang — the church. Churches sometimes perpetuate this perspective by pulling gangsters away from their familiar gang community and bringing them into an exclusive, legalistic group, explains Ekblad. Local prison chaplains wrestle with how to prevent violence against those gang members who want to follow Christ and still provide the Christian community and discipleship they need.
Ekblad saw a gangster who resembled the one in his dream, with tattoos and a large scar. He stopped to ask the man where the bathroom was, and a conversation ensued. Ekblad gradually learned the man's name was Piranha and that he was a top gang leader with a 132-year prison term.
"Would you like to see my cell?" Piranha asked humbly. The offer surprised Ekblad, but he gladly accepted. During their conversation in his cell, Piranha revealed that he knew he needed God. Ekblad told him about his dream and gave him a worship CD and a copy of his book, Reading the Bible with the Damned, about biblical interpretation from the perspective of the condemned. Piranha gladly accepted the gifts.
"He opened up and received a lot of love," Ekblad remembers, astonished at the hard-edged gangster's response. He prayed with Piranha, asking that God's peace and presence would fill his life.
Piranha's presence with Ekblad gave the team credibility, and they were able to gather about 40 inmates for the Bible study. One team member sang songs of deliverance as Ekblad got permission from the men to lay hands on them and pray. Music broke through the din of the prison, and gentle human touch softened men accustomed only to rough contact.
The text the group studied was the calling of Matthew. Ekblad described how hated Jewish tax collectors were because of their extortion crimes against their own people.
"Who might fit the description of tax collectors today?" he asked. The inmates exchanged glances and smiled knowingly. Ekblad knew that most gangsters earn money by imposing tariffs on neighbors, threatening to kill them if they don't pay. These men saw a reflection of themselves in Matthew.
"What was Matthew doing when Jesus called him?" Ekblad continued. To their surprise, the men discovered that he wasn't going to church or doing anything religious. He was stealing from his people when Jesus approached him. "What does this reveal about Jesus?" Ekblad pressed, helping them to realize that Jesus lovingly pursues sinners, even while they are practicing sinful behavior.
"Do you think Jesus is calling you to leave your gang?" Ekblad asked. The men shifted uncomfortably, guessing which answer Ekblad was fishing for, but he surprised them by pointing to the verse where Jesus goes to Matthew's house to eat with him and other sinners.
"So who follows whom?" Ekblad asked, watching the men's reactions. Jesus is the one who joins Matthew's crowd, the inmates discovered. It was an insight Ekblad had only recently received, and one that he is sure God gave him specifically for these gangsters.
Looking at Piranha and another gang chief, Ekblad asked a further question: "So what do you think—would you let Jesus into your gang?" Although the men were wary of making a positive response in front of their gang, Ekblad sensed their wonder and openness.
"So what do you think—would you let Jesus into your gang?"
Ekblad remarked later, "I had just come from praying with Piranha in his cell. Already they had been welcoming Jesus through our presence with them."
The group looked at Jesus' response to the Pharisees' disdain. Jesus dismisses the hypocrites, those commonly seen as healthy, and identifies himself instead with the sick, recruiting them as his friends and followers. Rather than feeling offended at being considered sick, the gangsters acknowledged their need for healing. They appeared to welcome the truth that Christ valued them and desired to be with them.
"What would you need to be healed of if Jesus were here right now?" Ekblad asked them. While they didn't dare answer openly, Ekblad and his team laid hands on these men and prayed for their healing.
As they left the jail, the team thanked the jail warden. Ekblad acknowledged the difficulty of the warden's work and asked if they could pray for him. The warden agreed and, in a spontaneous gesture of vulnerability, pulled his gun from its holster and bullets from his pockets, disarming himself before the team. They asked God to give him wisdom in his job and asked for healing for the burning pain across his shoulder, arm, and chest from a machete injury.
"All the pain is gone," he said after they prayed.
During the remainder of the trip, Ekblad and his team taught a group of ministry workers about forgiveness and prayed for God's Spirit to refresh each of them. The team marveled at how God was renewing all of these people—inmate, warden, and minister alike.