April 26, 2016

When Your Home Address is Rock Bottom

Post by Brittany Tedesco

I remember looking out the windows of the van on my way to the women's prison, nervously chatting with a fellow passenger.


I was a sophomore in high school and my youth group had choreographed a play set to music about a woman who'd hit rock bottom and was offered hope in Jesus Christ. Though the details of that day are fuzzy, I remember the roses. When the woman in the play hit the lowest point in her life, she was given a rose, symbolizing Jesus' love and offer of redemption.

As I performed my part on stage in front of dozens of female inmates that day, I stole glances at our audience and was surprised by the tears streaming down many of their faces. I didn't expect an amateur performance by a bunch of teenagers to make that kind of impact. Afterward, we offered a rose to each woman who came to watch our play. Several of them expressed heartfelt gratitude for the message we brought to them.

You see, they understood something that, today, is hugely unpopular and rarely taught: sin.

People have a real problem with sin these days. Not just the action, but the definition.

Sin = falling short of God's standards. That's a tough pill to swallow for people who'd prefer to measure their goodness by their own standards—which is easy to do when you're a decent, law-abiding person. It gets a lot harder when you're a convicted criminal. That's when the façade of goodness is stripped away—and that's when hearts are a little more open to the message of a Savior who died to redeem humans from the sin that separates us from God.

This is why prison ministry is so vital. Jesus didn't come for the righteous but for sinners. Translation: He came for those who recognize their sin, not for those who don't. These are the ones He uses for His purposes.

Chuck Colson with President George W. Bush after receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal, December 20, 2008
Chuck Colson with President George W. Bush after receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal, December 20, 2008

You likely know of Chuck Colson, who started Prison Fellowship, the largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families in the U.S.

After pleading guilty to obstruction of justice for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Colson served seven months in prison. He became a Christian behind bars after reading a friend's copy of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

A man named Rodriguez inhabited the cell adjacent to Colson's. The hotheaded, feisty little man found himself in multiple fights—one time with someone much larger and stronger than him. Colson was forced to listen to the brutal beating Rodriguez received at the hands of the stronger inmate...and then to Rodriguez's cries for help after it was all over. For hours, Rodriguez lay bleeding on the floor before he was carried away.

Colson was shaken. After he was released, he searched for Rodriguez in multiple prisons, but was never able to find him...never able to learn whether the man was dead or alive. What he did find, however, were thousands of men at rock bottom who were open to the gospel. How many of them have been added to the Kingdom through Colson's outreach?

Angel Aguirre
Angel Aguirre, leader of Christian Aid Mission-assisted Prison Outreach of Ecuador

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, a man by the name of Angel Aguirre was serving an eight-year sentence in prison for theft and drug trafficking. He found the remedy for his sin in the pages of a New Testament, left for him by a visitor. Who that visitor was, we don't know—other than someone who knew where to find people who might be receptive to the gospel message.

Aguirre accepted Christ as Savior, and began studying the Bible through a correspondence course. He was released early after four years, returning home to his wife and children as a new man.

Outdoor baptism

How many other men like him were sitting behind bars—aware of their sin but without the knowledge that Christ had already paid for it? Aguirre began visiting the five prisons in Ecuador's capital city every day, distributing the same gospel literature he'd studied in prison.

Groups of believers began to form in those prisons. Aguirre acquired help from others to lead the men in Bible study. I've seen photos of the baptism ceremonies that take place inside some of those prisons. A few of the photos look as though they were taken by someone on a platform, looking down on the event. What an interesting perspective, as though God's giving us a glimpse of the grace that occurs at rock bottom. Beauty from ashes.

Woman visiting prisoners in the Philippines

A church has been planted in each of 13 prisons—five in Quito and eight in surrounding provinces. Each church has its own pastor, elders, and deacons, ministering to hundreds of incarcerated believers.

This is only one of the indigenous prison outreaches that Christian Aid Mission supports throughout the world—there are others in places like Africa, Kazakhstan, and the Philippines.

Cross in Sunset

I just read a report from a native ministry in Myanmar that slaughtered two of their pigs—precious commodities in such a poor country—to prepare a pork curry for more than 1,500 inmates at a prison they visited. That they would show such love to societal outcasts touched the hearts of those prisoners, who listened intently to the message of redemption. The ministry leader wrote that several men suffering from chronic depression were visibly lightened, and are eager to learn more when the ministry returns.

You might have read or seen statistics about the increasing number of people in the U.S. who view Christianity as irrelevant to their lives—this is especially prevalent among Millenials, who might start out in church but later abandon it when it no longer seems to serve a purpose for them.

Could it be that this phenomenon coincides with the shift in how Jesus Christ is presented in our culture?

He's no longer a Savior for sinners, but something to tack onto your life to make it more meaningful.

You know that hole in your life that nothing else can fill?

"No," some might respond. "I've got a great life that I find quite meaningful, thank you very much."

Others will "accept" Jesus on the basis that He'll provide for them a richer and more fulfilling life...or because it's the cool youth-groupy thing to do.

Ecuadorian Prison

When temptation or hardship comes along, however, Jesus will most likely be the first thing to go in that person's life because He's getting in the way of their fun or not providing the easy, "fulfilling" life they expected. They accepted Him under false pretenses.

Jesus isn't something to be tacked on to someone's life—He's our one and only salvation from sin and death.

Until we see our sin for what it is—a terrible thing that separates us from God—we won't see our need for a Savior.

Sometimes it requires a person to hit rock bottom before the reality of the above truth can ever truly be understood. Thankfully, our Lord can be found at rock bottom—it's a place where He's delighted to hang out.

While the rest of us "good" people can dismiss our "acceptable" sins, convicted criminals aren't so easily able to do so. Their visible sins have the potential to serve as a constant reminder of their need to be rescued and redeemed.

Oh that we would all see our need for a Savior like many of them have.

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