130 prisoners completed the Christianity Explored course through The Prisoner's Journey programme. Jonathan reports and gives a glimpse of how the course is transforming Bellavista Prison.
Once ranked the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin is home to cocaine cartels, armed gangs and guerrilla groups.
It’s into dysfunctional cities like this that Prison Fellowship Colombia (PFC) ministers.
With young, energetic staff workers and volunteers, PFC engages in a broad range of prisoner outreach programmes including truth and reconciliation initiatives, support for prisoners’ families and restorative justice for victims. But crucially, recognising that prisoners’ spiritual needs are paramount, PFC lays great emphasis upon evangelism.
As a supporter of Christianity Explored Ministries I’m thrilled that PFC has chosen to use the Christianity Explored course as the focus for its evangelism initiative.
Re-branded as The Prisoner’s Journey, CE has been skilfully adapted for use within the prison context. The familiar pathway through Mark’s Gospel, Identity - Mission – Call, is expressed as Who? - Why? - So What?, and specially commissioned DVDs provide the teaching material using ex-prisoners’ testimonies to communicate important theological truths.
I’m profoundly grateful for an invitation to Medellin in October to see at first hand the work of Prison Fellowship in Colombia. My visit coincided with a graduation ceremony for a group of prisoners who had completed CE in Medellin’s Bellavista Prison – a notorious jail with a history of extreme violence and homicide amongst prisoners.
For many inmates incarcerated in this bewilderingly overcrowded and run-down facility, the love shown by PFC’s teams is the first they’ve ever encountered. Thus an invitation to meet Jesus of Nazareth – a prisoner himself – is one that many enthusiastically accept.
On graduation day the prison chapel was full to overflowing. 130 graduates were joined by friends, CE group leaders and senior prison officials. Onlookers squeezed themselves onto stairs and window ledges whilst curious faces peered in through the windows. Speeches, prayers and fervent praise were followed by the presentation of a Bible and a certificate to each graduating prisoner. The accompaniment of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory only added to the sense of occasion! Hugs, photographs and requests by the prisoners for the team’s autographs followed.
For one brief but joyful hour the prison had been transformed into a church. But what of the long-term legacy? Born-again prisoners now are eagerly inviting other inmates to attend the CE courses. Discipleship is happening. Relationships with family members are being restored. More than that, the atmosphere in the prison is being transformed. Indeed the impact of this work is being felt right across Colombia. One of PFC’s leaders has been key to the ongoing peace process having encouraged the leader of a paramilitary group to disarm his fighters.
This brave Christ-centred passion for people and for peace has won the admiration of many in government. On our final night in Medellin we were hosted by a former senator who testified to PFC’s key role in transforming Colombia. However it was the Regional Director of Prisons who best expressed the situation.
‘For a while, people can change themselves on the outside’ she said. ‘But lasting change must happen on the inside. Only God can do that’.
Amen! It’s my prayer that Christianity Explored will continue to be used by the Lord to change people’s lives in different countries and many contexts all around the world.