This month, six students from The Seattle School will participate in a one-week intensive in Guatemala City. The cross-cultural course, “Engaging Global Partnerships: Creating Conversations with Grassroots Leaders in their Context,” will be hosted by Guatemalan leaders serving Guatemala City communities impacted by poverty, lack of education, homelessness, addiction, and gang violence. Under the leadership and instruction of Dr. Ron Ruthruff, students will be invited to establish conversation partners and increase awareness of those who are loving God and neighbor in a different cultural and geographical location.
“We have to step outside of our comfort zone and the walls of our school for that kind of conversation to happen,” says Dr. Ruthruff. “We have to step into places that are unfamiliar and that expose our own locatedness and woundedness.”
We got into the warden’s office and a long conversation in Spanish ended with smiles and handshakes. Joel said that the warden claimed that he was happy to have religious services for the men, and was incredibly glad that a doctor from the United States was investing in the young men of Guatemala, because he, like me, was hoping they would be rehabilitated. He told one of his guards that we should be given access to any inmate with whom we wanted to talk. We thanked him for taking time to meet with us and granting us such access. I guess I was earning my keep. My status as an American and my credentials meant the prison warden wanted to impress me. This was embarrassing, but I knew that I was a man of privilege and I might as well use it for something good. We left the warden’s office and I started to think to myself, This isn’t so bad.
Wardens like to impress visitors, especially European-American ones from the US. He might have been genuine in his concern for the inmates’ rehabilitation, and the prison seemed safe enough. Lots of guards, clean-looking warden’s building, and well-manicured grass. About this time, we reached another gate. We left our IDs with another guard who sat in a shack. I started to feel uncomfortable with the thought of leaving my passport while at the same time going into a prison. The gate we were about to enter resembled the original iron gate that we first entered through. This one, however, was twice as big and wrapped with barbed wire. I reluctantly relinquished my passport and walked through. I heard the creak of the gate and, as it closed, I realized all the uniformed men were standing outside the walled area we were passing through. I was struck suddenly with cold, sobering thoughts, All the corrections officers on the perimeter of a prison.
I stood with Joel, Alvin, David, and a lot of men looking for their mothers, sons, daughters, or wives. As we walked through the prison yard, I looked to find the guards. Thoughts of my passport being sold before I could get back to the gate distracted me.
Some of the male prisoners played soccer. Some cut large coconuts with even larger homemade machetes. Others sold soda pop and thirst quenchers. Now this is where I have to admit that stereotypes and profiling get in the way of reality. I looked at the machetes and food and drink available with little security and I immediately landed on Hollywood images. I began to wonder if this was like the movies. What I didn’t know until later: all this freedom was earned by men, many of whom were a few steps away from freedom and moving back into the community. This wasn’t atypical, and chaos didn’t rule. But all the images were strange to me and I had no point of reference to interpret or understand. I was not in a context I understood. As we approached a large building that I assumed was the housing unit, a man came running toward David and Alvin. He hugged them both. I thought, This must be who we came to see. I was then introduced to Roberto. I tried hard to pay attention to the introduction. I pushed away the thoughts of my passport being sold and attempted to focus.
All the images were strange to me and I had no point of reference to interpret or understand.
I knew a little of Roberto’s story. The chaplains had briefed me regarding the details of Roberto’s predicament. Chaplains had met him in another prison. Roberto was a high-ranking gang official. In the previous prison, Roberto had become frustrated with the lack of activity provided for the inmates and began to create a document that would address the spiritual, physical, and education needs of his brothers in the prison. Back home, before I had come to Guatemala, Joel had given me a copy of the document. It was incredibly thorough and well written. One could easily see Roberto’s organizational skills. The only problem with his plan was that the prison administration loved it. They loved it so much that they began to delegate to Roberto other administrative tasks. Soon his gang affiliates became suspicious of his allegiance to the “police” and ordered him killed, thinking he was turning against them. He was crushed by their accusations and then had to make the most difficult choice of his life—ask for a transfer or die.
Roberto spoke only Spanish and Joel was very kind to keep me somewhat up to speed as we began to have a conversation together. We pushed a few dogs out of some plastic lawn chairs and sat down while Roberto brought each of us a Gatorade. (Remember, our wallets and IDs were hopefully back in the guard shack.) Roberto told us of his transfer and of the incredible loneliness and depression that came with his being moved out of the gang unit and being labeled a traitor. In the middle of his loneliness, he had begun to read the Bible and had asked God to give him a purpose to live. Roberto said that he thought of suicide many times. But as he prayed to God, he also thought about the poor in Guatemala and the lack of resources available to help them. He was especially concerned about those with major medical problems.
An amazing story followed. The prison he was currently in was a city unto itself. As I sat there, sipping an ice-cold Gatorade, he began to tell me that when he first arrived he realized that there were many cottage industries established by the inmates in the main yard. There were soda pop and beverage stands, live chickens for sale, and a variety of food items for sale that supplemented the prison-issued rice and beans. Roberto noticed that they had everything except a tortilla stove. He began talking with the other Christian inmates and, through the missional network, obtained the stove. They began to sell tortillas to the other inmates. They produced volumes of tortillas that generated several hundred dollars of profit. They started to think about where they could donate the money.
Cell phones are everywhere in the Guatemalan prison system. I guess it’s a lot better than the U.S. system, where inmates call collect or must create a bank of minutes to be used with pre-approved visitors. I am sure lots of phone companies benefit. Roberto and his fellow inmates started making calls, searching for churches that knew of children who were sick with cancer. After lots of phone calls, they finally identified two needy families who had children with terminal illnesses. They made arrangements to invite the families to the prison and then presented all the money they had raised from the tortilla stand to them. They told the families that, even though they were in prison, they realized they were blessed, and if they were truly Christians they must share this blessing with others.
The strategy to purchase an oven, sell tortillas, and find recipients for the profits involved complex and elaborate planning. As Roberto told the story, he was so proud of the great project that they had created. He looked at me and said in Spanish, “Even though we are in prison, as Christians we must care for those that have less than we do.” I sat there listening to the story interpreted into English. I continued to listen as Roberto shared about his plans to do even more. I thought back to the human services plan that Roberto had authored. He was truly a gifted organizer and administrator. When there was a break in the conversation, I took the opportunity to quickly look through the Spanish Bible sitting on the table next to us. I was looking for the story of Joseph in Genesis 18. I found it, but in this Bible, it was the story of Jose. After finding the chapter I asked Roberto, “Have you ever read this story?” He shook his head and said, “No.” Through Joel I began to recount the story.
“Roberto, I saw the proposal you created to give your fellow inmates more access to recreational, religious, and social services. I have listened to you share about your tortilla business that you created to raise money to help families with very sick children. The business you developed not only helped children, but also gave the inmates in this prison a sense of purpose. Joseph in Genesis 18 was also a gifted organizer and administrator. He not only saved his family, but the entire nation of Egypt through his administrative gifts. Roberto, you’re like Joseph.”
All of a sudden, Alvin became incredibly excited and began to share something with Roberto. Since they were speaking in Spanish, I was in the dark. Alvin kept grabbing the Bible and telling Roberto something. Roberto kept laughing and clapping. Joel began to tell me what was happening. Alvin knew the story of Joseph as well. As I had begun to compare Roberto’s gifts to those of Joseph, Alvin became filled with the Spirit and started to preach the following message:
“Roberto, you, like Joseph, have a gift that made your brothers jealous. Joseph’s brothers threw him in a hole; your brothers threatened to kill you. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery; you were banished from the former gang prison, sent to another prison meant for those who have nowhere else to go. But God gave Joseph favor. What his brothers meant for evil, God intended for good. This is your story, Roberto. God has brought you here! Formerly you were in a prison cell with 125 fellow gang members and now you’re in a prison where you have influence over 500! God has taken evil and made it good for you!”
The story of God’s faithfulness to both Joseph and Roberto is a divine connection we all had the privilege to witness. We experienced that “thin place” in the supernatural, where God’s light is revealed in a very dark place mysteriously. During that afternoon visit, we all had participated in the telling of the story of Joseph and the story of Roberto. God used me to bring the story to the table, but Joel had interpreted, and a former gang member had illuminated and contextualized the story in a profound way. Two gang members, a missionary, and I unwrapping a piece of Scripture together in a Guatemalan prison—amazing!
As I rode away from the prison, I thought of all of us who had sat at the table. I thought to myself, it truly takes a whole community to tell the whole story of God. Joel, Alvin, David, Roberto, and I had all contributed in the mysterious God-moment. The profound story of God beautifully interwoven and connected with a story of a man, banished from his gang of brothers only to find himself in the story of Joseph. Thrown into a prison of refugees only to organize, administer his gifts, and bring hope through his abilities. The whole story of God can only be experienced in that way when we’re together as a whole community.
It takes a whole community to tell the whole story of God.
Today, I continue to wonder how often we as Christians hear only part of the story. What are the parts of the Bible to which we are blind, based on our limited experiences of God? I also know that most of our Christian communities could benefit from hearing voices like Alvin’s and Roberto’s. These men are not usually invited to the community to share their theological perspectives or experiences. Who have we ignored in God’s community, and how has the story of God been limited because their voices have not been heard? My time at the prison would have been much different without Alvin. I continue to challenge myself with this and other questions, in an effort to experience God’s complete and whole community: Who are those people in our church that need to be invited to speak? Who are those who are not currently being invited to share their stories of God?
The Least of These, by Dr. Ron Ruthruff, is excerpted with the permission of New Hope Publishers in Birmingham, Alabama.