Christmas conjures up pictures of Christmas carols, bright lights and tea around a crackling fire.
But Bellavista prison! What a nightmare! Colombia, a land torn apart by evil men: drug dealers, assassins and guerrillas. Bellavista was once the most feared prison in Colombia, where notorious criminals ruled. Two inmates died violently every day within its walls. Anarchy reigned. Blood flowed, and nobody cared. Or so it seemed.
‘Christmas was the worst time of the year’, one inmate told me. ‘Everyone takes inventory of what they have lost. I hate being imprisoned and separated from my family. It’s so lonely and sad. I tried to drown out my sorrow with drink. But nothing could take away the pain I felt inside.’
‘I was rebellious and scoffed at those who talked about Jesus. What difference could he ever make in a hellhole like this?
‘But I will never forget the day I put aside my pride and turned to the Christ I saw lived before me by my brothers. Jesus is a living presence with them and I could not resist his unconditional love.
‘Now as Christmas nears I celebrate it with joy – There are no circumstances that can shut out the love of God. As I worship and adore him, I want the whole world to experience the deep peace that is mine!’
Bellavista prison (built for 1,500 – population 6,500) in Medellín, Colombia, has been turned upside down by the gospel. Many, both inside and outside, have had their lives radically transformed by its message.
There are now more than 500 prisoners engaged in Bible training programmes and 24 inmates are on the leadership team of a church formed inside the prison.
Daily, prisoners proclaim freedom in Christ on a half-hour, live radio broadcast direct from prison. This reaches into homes, offices and work places throughout Antioquia, the largest department of the country.
Contacts are followed up through local churches. Over 1,000 Bibles have been given to people seeking God. Over 25,000 evangelistic books have been passed to children.
Ever since January 2001, there has been at least one inmate in Bellavista who prays and fasts every day of the month for the President of the United States. This is remarkable in a country where so many are hostile to the USA.
In September 2001 the New Tribes Mission released news that their missionaries, David Mankins, Mark Rich and Richard Tenenoff, kidnapped in 1993, had been killed by their captors in 1996.
When the believers in Bellavista prison learned that a memorial service for the missionaries would be held, they asked forgiveness for the crimes committed against these brothers and their families.
In a letter they wrote; ‘Even though we were not the authors of the crime which affects you, we, who once were criminals, today desire to be instruments of peace. On behalf of those who committed this crime we ask you to forgive us. We ask that you forgive the sin of Colombia’.
The gospel has been spreading to other prisons also. For example, seven months ago, three hundred Colombian prisoners stood stripped of all earthly possessions, waiting to be transferred to a high security prison at Valledupar. Uniforms and chains were awaiting their arrival.
Among these prisoners were five Christian inmates from Bellavista. All that the other prisoners were allowed to take with them were the clothes on their backs. But these five young men from Bellavista were also carrying their most treasured possession – their Bibles!
Now, seven months later, there are 200 believers in Valledupar prison!
Our goal is to train three Bible class leaders for each of the prison’s various towers, using the theological training programme run from Medellin theological seminary.
Christ was born into this world and crucified on the cross in order to bring sinners into fellowship with God. He draws men and women, boys and girls into a love relationship with himself, through repentance and faith. Across Colombia, God is raising up his church behind bars.