Ministry grows under leadership of ex-con
There is a saying: “When life throws you a lemon, make lemonade.”A Mennonite Brethren church in Asuncion, Paraguay, has done just that.
About 25 years ago several young men from this church got in trouble with the law and landed in Tacumbú, the largest prison in the city. This brought some of the church leaders into the prison in a new way.
Among other things, they asked prison officials for permission to show Christian movies in the prison. Attendance was voluntary. These were so well accepted that soon Christian services were held. Again,attendance was voluntary.
Eventually, a young evangelist was commissioned to hold services in the prison with support coming from the German-speaking Mennonite Brethren church in the area.
Inside the prison things began to change. The size of the group grew, and prison officials gave permission for an old carpentry room to be turned into a church meeting room. The German MB church provided the renovation materials, and the inmates did the work. They even built a baptistery. A church was organized, and soon 300 inmates were worshiping there, holding periodic baptisms as they became believers. The prisoners chose the name Libertad (Freedom) for their church. Regularly scheduled small groups eventually drew more than 600 men into weekly Bible studies.
Eventually the young Mennonite men were released from prison, but the ministry continued. The church leaders expanded their ministry to include a halfway house to help ease release inmates back into society.
Prison officials saw what was happening to the men that were part of this church, and asked the church leaders to take over the administration of one block in the prison. Prisoners could request a transfer to this block and had to agree to abide by established rules. These included requirements for personal behavior and attendance at Bible study and church services. This program was so successful that soon prison officials expanded the number of blocks in this section. Tacumbú has become a model for other prisons.
A key component of the program’s success is the current evangelist who has been with the church for the past 18 years.The first evangelist, who was not an ex-con, left after several years. As the church talked and prayed about finding a new evangelist, the MB church leaders became convinced that Felix, a former inmate, would be an excellent choice. Talk about taking a lemon and making lemonade!
Felix was a criminal, into drugs and the occult, who ended up in jail because he was involved with two other men in a criminal activity that resulted in the death of another man. Facing a death sentence, he decided to end his life. Felix had nothing to live for, nothing to do but wait for his execution.
During this time Felix’s wife, Elena, accepted Christ at meetings held in Asuncion by Argentinean-born evangelist Luis Palau. Her Mennonite counselor helped Elena visit the police station where her husband was being held. She took him a care package that included fruit and the Billy Graham book, Peace With God.
Elena told her husband what had happened to her and urged him to read the book. Felix did and accepted Christ. For the next six-and-one-half years he studied the Bible, visited with counselors and grew in his Christian faith. He became active in the prison church. And then he was released from prison by a judge who was impressed with his rehabilitation.
It was at this time that the German MB church in Asuncion was looking for an evangelist to lead the prison church. The more they prayed the more convinced they became that Felix was the right person for the job. When asked if he would be their missionary to the prison, he agreed and has made it his life’s work.
The whole program, as envisioned by the church leadership, is evangelism-centered with an emphasis on discipleship training. It is working very well. There is a very low return rate to prison (6 to 7 percent) of those who are baptized members of Libertad Church. Some prisoners have gone on to further their education, one even worked on a BA in theology. Others have trained for social work.
What started as a sour lemon has turned into a dynamic, refreshing ministry with positive results for the inmates, their families and their communities. I think this is what Jesus has in mind when he says, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:36).
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