Uncomfortable. Chilling. Archaic. I’m not sure how words describe this place.
We arrived and were soon ushered into the director’s office to wait for his arrival. Each of us fervently prayed for God’s Spirit to wash over this place. The director walked in and after verifying our written permission documents provided by government officials, he agreed to let us in to bring the Word to these men.
Escorted to the front gate, we waited to go in… watching the work details outside the place, each with several guards carrying AK-47s. All of them curiously eyeing the unexpected foreigners who had come to visit. All of us trying to act calm.
Shortly they opened the gate door, we walked inside and immediately entered an incredibly surreal environment. Other than being full of men who deserved to be locked up, nothing about this place resembles an American correctional facility. No modern compound. No air conditioned cell blocks, no TVs, no exercise yards. Just a sea of humanity in an open, dirty space surrounded by 30 foot walls with broken glass atop. Only ragged tents to sleep in. Work teams coming and going as each group performs their assigned daily manual labor. The only way I can describe this place is it brings to mind images of what a Civil War era prison must have looked like.
We were quickly ushered to the front of the yard where it took only a moment to feel the intense stare of some 600 men standing and sitting, all packed into a small space. I thought of the statistics we had seen in the director’s office…over 3400 prisoners in this place; more than 2300 convicted of acts of genocide.
I’m trying really hard not to look nervous.
But as I sat and our host explained to the men why we had come, I began to see these men differently. Yes, most were locked up for horrendous murders during the intense 100 day genocide 20 years ago, but I also noticed numerous young faces. Surely many men guilty of lesser charges, most likely even some who were wrongly convicted.
The reality is most of these men have accepted that life has moved on without them. They assume the world they knew has forgotten about them. In their minds they no longer matter to anyone.
If I were to imagine a fate worse than death, it would be a reality that included incarceration in some remote place and not knowing if anyone outside even knew where I was. Chilling.
As we began our four person team was introduced and Nick shared a short testimony with the inmates. It gave me a chance to scan the faces and I saw what you always see from up front – many intently curious and interested faces, along with some who looked as though they had probably been forced to come. (no offense, American church J)
They were receptive to Nick’s story (thank you Lord) and then it was time for me to speak. I’ve learned over the years that the more simply the Word of God is broken down, the more profoundly it affects my heart. So I shared from one of my favorite stories in the gospels. The story of Jesus healing the blind beggar in John 9. It’s a favorite for me because I can relate so well to the man who is healed in the story. Asked by antagonists to explain the change which had miraculously happened in his life, the man’s answer was genius. “I’m not completely sure but here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I can see!”
To be honest, I also like part of the story in verse 27 when he’s a wee bit antagonizing toward them…“I already told you what happened, do you want to be his disciples too?”
And most importantly, in verse 38 the man finally truly understands who Jesus is and that not only had his physical sight been healed but also his spiritual blindness and the Bible says “he worshipped Him.”
I’m sure it was with all of his heart.
As I shared this simple message I tried to assure these Rwandan men that no matter how far they had been from God’s will, no matter what sins they had committed, the offer of grace through repentance was available to every one of them. All of them.
The farther away, the greater the testimony. God gets all the glory.
At the invitation time, as Pastor Anastase Sabamungu asked for hands to be raised by those who wanted to receive the offer of Jesus as Lord and Savior, hundreds of hands went up. Anastase told them, “No, only those who want to receive Jesus for the first time should raise your hands.” Many, many hands stayed up. Praise the Lord for His miracles of redemption.
I have no idea how many of these men made sincere commitments of faith this day; it’s not my concern. If only one eternity was changed, if only one man accepted the offer of healing and community with Christ, if only one man had his desperation and fear of being forgotten released, it was a day when we were privileged to witness a profound miracle of God.
I do know God used our SCC team in that prison. He used our stories and testimonies to open the hearts of others. But I also know He changed something inside each of us. If God can reach convicted mass murderers in a jungle prison with an amazingly simple message of love and hope, if our Father in heaven seeks those who would love Him regardless of their horrendous sins in the heart of Africa, how do I treat those who have wronged me back home? What grudges do I carry which are justified?
It’s a simple answer.
Thank you Jesus for revealing yourself and for teaching me a lesson inside a Rwandan prison.