Before the World Soccer Cup in June 1994, the Colombian team captain was interviewed. ‘Our objective when we go down to the field for a match is to give our people a moment of happiness’, he said.
The fleeting exhilaration of such a moment was obliterated. Only two weeks into the Cup, a stunned world learned of Andres Escobar’s violent death for giving away an own-goal as Colombia played against the USA. The tentacles of evil reach into every aspect of life in Colombia. The ‘death culture’ reigns.
At a stoplight, hired assassins roar up to a bus which has just braked to a halt. Shots ring out. The bus driver slumps over, dead, leaving hysterical passengers wondering who is next.
Life has no value; men live to kill and be killed. There is nothing for which to live. Paramilitary right fights guerrilla left. Both groups find it lucrative to look after the drug barons’ interests. Over 3,000 policeman have died in recent years in the war against drugs. As one young lad said, ‘Killing for the drug lords made me complete. All of a sudden I had everything that I always wanted, and it was fast and easy’.
In the internal war which rages in Colombia, no one really knows who the enemy is, or who will be the next target. The situation is complex. A pastor goes to a barracks to share the gospel. Grateful soldiers give the poor, young pastor a pair of boots.
Soon afterwards, the pastor is kidnapped by guerrillas, and shot dead because he was wearing government boots. His church is nailed shut. What can stop the sea of blood that washes over Colombia’s soil?
Romans 5:17 says,; ‘For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’.
Can one Man make a difference in a land where death reigns? Bellavista maximum-security prison holds members of all the warring factions. Built for 1,500 inmates in 1976, today the prison holds 6,000. Men sleep in the bathrooms and in the hallways. Hammocks are strung above, from one iron bar to another, to accommodate yet more.
The horribly crowded conditions make this desperate situation ripe for rioting. All prisons in Colombia are in crisis, with frequent rioting and death. But Bellavista is different. There have only been eight murders in the past nine years.
No riots! Why? Only nine years ago the monthly murder rate was thirty to sixty. Human heads were kicked about like footballs. Bloodstained walls proclaimed total depravity and hopelessness.
But into this pit descended an obedient Christian, to lift up Jesus Christ. The deaths stopped abruptly. The newspapers headlines read, ‘Bellavista – one year without one murder’. The article that followed told the amazing story of hired killers being transformed by the power of the risen Saviour. Little did I dream that God would one day place me in the middle of this fearful ‘jaws of hell’, as Bellavista was known. Here I have witnessed the glory and power of our living Lord.
Since 1992 a Bible training college has been established in Bellavista prison and 160 inmate brothers have graduated to serve their Lord. Some have gained their freedom. Others have transferred to other penitentiaries. Wherever they go, a church is raised up behind bars.
I get letters from all over the country telling me how God is moving. The brothers miss the strong spiritual fellowship and accountability they had in Bellavista. As an officer told me, ‘The wings ring with singing at dawn every morning as the brothers gather to pray together’. In each patio there are two to three ‘elders’, one of which serves on the governing body of the church behind bars.
At 7 a.m. the ‘body count’ takes place. After this only 2,000 prisoners have work to do. Others study. Our chapel is packed with 150 believers. Every patio has a large group of believers that meets twice a day.
The entire week has special evangelistic activities, discipleship, classes for baptism, all led by inmates who are or have been trained in the Bible college. Right now forty fellows are in the seminary. Every Monday to Friday a live radio programme, A Cry of Hope, is broadcast from the prison chapel. Inmates run the programme and preach.
Their worship, expressed in song, captures hearts. One lady, weary from her husband’s tirades, picked up his .38 revolver to kill herself. Before she did she turned on the radio. Maria listened and before the programme was over she was calling on the Lord. Overwhelmed, she wrote to her ‘new brothers in Christ’.
The counselling done from inside the prison to people on the outside was so great that we felt we needed to have our own telephone line. The first day the telephone number was announced, over fifty calls came in during the first two hours, many seeking to know how they could be ‘set free inside’ like the prisoners were!
Inmate Christian leaders are on call twenty-four hours of the day. We are seeing many, many young men experience a deep work of God in their lives. The church of Bellavista prison continues to grow, both within and outside the prison walls, as men live in transparency before God and one another.
Entire families have come into the kingdom, because family members have witnessed the transformation of their men. Every weekend, on visiting days, evangelistic services are held by the inmates for their families. Once a month, children come to see their daddies. It is very moving to see men, who once killed for a living, totally transformed and tenderly seeking to reach the young for Christ.
God has worked in an unprecedented way. ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ (Isaiah 9:2).