Today we visited the prison in Oaxaca.
We pulled up to the prison entrance and stopped at a gate painted yellow and black. Enrique, our guide and the pastor who visits the prison weekly, talked to the guards who were carrying ak-47s and dressed in black head to toe. We were told not to wear black to the prison so we wouldn’t be mistaken for the 5 foot, dark skinned Oaxacans. While the guards searched the van, we lined up single file on a brick wall and staring at those guns I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. We passed inspection and the guard smiled at us while he told us we could get back in the van. We parked the van and went to the front desk which was located outside. We waited there 10 minutes, then the guards came out to start the process. “The Process” wasn’t too intense, but it was the first time that I have been patted down. We went through the gates, handed our IDs to some other guards and entered the final gate into the prison.
Walking through that prison is something I will never forget. It was more like a town than a prison. A concrete street wove through the prison and we followed a path through numerous doorways. People lined the path lounging, working and mostly staring at the group of white Americans making their way to the church service. It was hard to tell who the prisoners were since everybody was wearing street clothes. The prison in Oaxaca is set up completely different than the U.S. The prisoners are not taken care of at all, they have to provide for themselves. They work at different trades inside making money to buy food and clothes. One thing about the prison that shocked me was that if the children of the prisoners have nowhere to go they will stay in the prison with their parents, so there were kids around as well. We saw a barber shop set up and many people were busy at weaving baskets or sewing soccer balls. Enrique led the way talking kindly to everyone we passed. We were greeted with friendliness for the most part.
We arrived at the room where the service would be held and were greeted by smiling faces. We quickly took our seats and jumped right into one of the most authentic Christian experiences I have ever been a part of. Immediately they asked if someone from our group plays guitar, and I was instantly volunteered. I went to the front, strapped on the guitar and went completely blank, so while I bought some time by tuning Keith came up and gave a short talk telling the people that we were brothers and sisters in Christ and that we were happy to be there. I was on the spot and played one of my own songs since I don’t know any worship songs by heart on the guitar. Kay came up next, read some scripture and gave a very encouraging talk about being written on the palm of God’s hand. Ryan shared some scripture from the book of Juan chapter 12 verses 46-47. Kelly came up and shared a scripture that was written on a dog tag that his brother gave him before he left, it was from 1Corinthians chapter 13 verses 4-7. I went up and shared the one full sentence I know in Spanish, “El hijo de Dios pone el fuego en mi corizon.” The son of God puts a fire in my heart. After our group shared we sang some songs led by a passionate musician who belted out the lyrics. Everyone sang loudly and we enjoyed the presence of the Lord. After the music the prisoners took turns sharing testimonies and we were blessed to have a translator. Their thankfulness to God was such an awesome light in a dark place. They were grateful for physical life and spiritual rebirth. There seemed to be no pretenses as one after another shared from their hearts. Enrique got up and told the story of Jonah and how he was in the belly of a fish because he didn’t do what God asked. He told the people that the prison was like the fish and in isolation the prisoners could find true guidance through Christ to get back on track. We sang more songs, heard more testimonies, drank some Pepsi and Tyler closed us out in prayer.
We were escorted back to the entrance by some of the prisoners and said goodbye, struck by how strong our connection to the people we met only moments ago had become. They invited us to come back on Saturday and I hope we get the chance.