I spent last weekend in prison. I spent with a group of guys who I came to love like my own brothers. I served on the team of a prison ministry called KAIROS. In order to protect the life of the principal in this story, I cannot share who I was with or where I was.
We sat inside the chapel area in "family groups" at five different tables to discuss impressions on what is known as "a short course in Christianity." During some "down time" on Saturday, I asked if anyone wanted to explain the significance of any of their ink. A brother, who is serving a life sentence, quickly jumped in. His tattoo was a view of Christ on the cross. At the foot of the cross, he had a gang symbol for the gang he had been “representin’” since 1983. He told us: “My religion is ****** (his gang) but my faith is in Jesus.” Now the fact that this man was intelligent was obvious. He had a real gift for writing and he gave incredibly insightful summaries to our table discussion talks.
But this statement bothered me. How can he consider faith as something different from religion? When I asked him, he said: “religion is what you practice but faith is what you believe in.” I thought I understood his perspective, but for some reason the misuse of the words bothered me. And it isn't that I am that concerned about abuse of the English language (keep reading my blog, that will become obvious). Something didn't set right in my spirit. He said that even though his gang is known for violence, enslaving people to drugs, and coercive recruiting, originally they intended to be a positive group. His desire was to restore them to a positive perspective. That, he said, was why he had the tattoo of Jesus on the cross mixed in with his gang symbol. It was then that he then told us that he was trying to make his gang "way of life" an official religion so that he and his fellow gang-members can wear their colors, just like the Muslims wear the Kufe.
Gang colors would cause a powder keg to erupt on the prison campus. Sitting on my left were two Hispanics. As soon as this gang leader mentioned the name of his gang they withdrew and became quiet. The tension soared at the table. There are subtle power struggles going on in the prison beyond what we outsiders can easily see. I started praying!!! I remembered that the ethos of approach to the men in the prison during the weekend was to be: “Listen, Listen, Love, Love and never judge." So, I didn’t directly challenge his statement, but I questioned his use of words in order to help him consider that faith in Christ is a way of life.
I could hardly sleep that night. In the course of the conservation on Saturday, he told us that converting to Christianity would cost him his life. He told us that he would defend his fellow gang members to the death and that in the course of his defense; he had already been shot with 6 bullets on three different occasions. But the fact was: the Holy Spirit was calling him to Jesus. Joel, my table leader asked me to “step up” and be a little more direct. We all prayed about the situation, the fact of gang violence and the cost of discipleship.
God was calling him to Jesus. And for this man, that wasn't a simple call. God’s call reminded me of those early Jewish followers who died for their faith. It reminded me of the early Roman converts who were slaughtered in the arenas. It reminded me of the Brethren and Mennonite farmers who gave their lives and farms in order to create the underground railroad and stop slavery in the US. It reminded me of the courage that believers had in WWII when they hid our Jewish brothers and sisters, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. These were people who rejected the doctrine of the empire and the false forms of Christianity that mix politics with religion in order to justify racism, extensive materialism, oppression and war. They are people that Charlotte, a beautiful Jewish woman who is my friend and next-door neighbor, would call “sincere Christians” because their faith isn’t about domination, but serving humanity like Jesus did. As God was calling this man to Himself, our table looked at Jesus’ words “if anyone seeks to gain (maintain control of) his or her life, they will lose it. If they lose their life, they will gain eternal life.” That man was faced with a real hard choice. He was faced with physical life and spiritual death or physical death and spiritual life.
At the closing, he went to the microphone and said, “You all know what I have been representin'. I have been representin’ since 1983, but now, I represent Jesus.” Pray for Him. I won’t give his name, because I don’t want to paint the bull’s-eye on his back, but the Lord knows who he is. Pray that God use this man to bring the peace of Christ to that campus. Those prisoners became the Lord's freemen. They were set free from sin, from prejudice, and from unforgiveness.