Jesus said, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32).
Isn’t it dangerous?
‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ This was the reaction of my aunt when I told her about my new ministry in the north of Brazil back in 2016. I had taken to the work straight away after a number of years working with kids on the streets of Belém, so to be honest, I had never really thought about it being dangerous. Whether they were in the prison or on the streets, the youngsters often had similar backgrounds.
Each day, colleagues and I visited up to three of the 11 prisons just outside Belém: three of them were girls’ prisons and the rest were for boys, all aged between 13 to 21. Each prison had a different atmosphere, some were quite pleasant but others were filthy, smelly and claustrophobic, with up to five young people in one cell. The reasons behind incarceration were the same in each prison – mainly assault or robbery, usually with a weapon, on the street or in a home, but many had committed murder or rape. I have known a boy of 13 who was in for raping and murdering his young niece. Even within the world of crime, there were the ‘unacceptable crimes’ such as rape, murdering your mother or being homosexual, which means the individuals who had committed such offences were separated for their own protection.
We evangelised all these youngsters and I loved it!
Strangely enough, the main challenge was not the danger of being attacked, or even hostility towards us. Some kids were hard, proud and loved their life of crime and so didn’t want to talk about God, but for the most part, they respected us and loved spending time with us.
The great challenge was religiosity. Most of the youngsters had contact with some type of church, they knew Christian songs and would even tell inmates in other cells to be quiet when we were speaking with them. However, most had mixed-up beliefs, including salvation by works, while at the same time seeing God as a ‘Father Christmas’ type figure who is there to give them what they want. Some even asked God to bless their assaults. Many did realise that they were sinful, but didn’t realise the offensiveness of their sin before a holy God.
Another challenge was other ‘Christian’ groups who also had contact with these youngsters and often taught things that were not biblical.
More positively, though a constant challenge, was the follow-up of Christian youngsters after their release as many were from other cities far from Belém. Unfortunately, some did revert to their old way of life and were even killed because of it.
For me personally, it was an immense privilege to speak to up to 40 young offenders a week and tell them of a person who transforms the lives of all who come to him in repentance and faith. I often got to see the same youngsters each week and so developed many relationships of trust. Some, particularly the girls, really opened up about their lives and feelings. The greatest joy of all is knowing that some believed and are still walking with the Lord. What a blessing to have been a part of the salvation and discipleship of many youngsters and to have seen how the Lord worked in their lives in the midst of temptations and trials! Even now after leaving Brazil, I still have contact with some of these youngsters and can continue to encourage them. How wonderful to think that though I will probably never see them on this earth again, they will be in glory, praising God with me!
So, was this work dangerous? At times yes, but not everyone has access to these broken lives and it was precious to have gained their confidence, to have taught and to have prayed with these brothers and sisters in Christ whose lives are being used for his glory.
Daniel* was 17 years old and, along with four other boys, was in a part of the prison away from the main group of boys because of the type of crimes they had committed. I went in with my colleague, taking with me The Green Bag, a counselling tool created by a Christian psychologist. This bag was created to help children with trauma, particularly street children, and is well known and well used in Brazil and some other poorer countries. After training, I had used it to counsel many teenagers in prison.
I sat down on the floor with Daniel and asked him a question to start the counselling. He started talking and, without me saying any more, told me about the awful murder he had committed of a close family member whilst under the influence of drugs. He went into detail as I sat and listened, and when he stopped, I pulled the story of the prodigal son out of the bag. I told Daniel of his need to repent and return to the Father like the son in the parable, and he would be forgiven. He started to talk again, telling me he knew God had forgiven him as he had repented but he couldn’t forgive himself. We talked some more, prayed, then returned to the others and I asked God to work in his life.
Later, whilst at home, I re-read some verses I had pinned to the wall in my kitchen and I remembered what they had recently taught me; if God has already forgiven us, then no-one can condemn us, not even ourselves.
Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Rom. 8:34).
The next time I saw Daniel I shared this with him and how it had also spoken to me.
As we continued evangelising this group of boys we realised that Daniel had truly been saved. He always listened intently, asking questions and responding in a way that showed he knew the Lord. He came to understand that he was free of the guilt from what he had done, and over time was able to focus on the fact that he is a new creation. We discipled him along with two other boys when he moved to the over 18’s prison, then continued to support him via phone-call when he was released and moved back to his home city some distance away from Belem.
Although he encountered hostility from his family and lots of obstacles, he found a Christian family and still calls the team to testify of God’s faithfulness to him. How amazing for me, myself just a saved sinner, to witness this transformation and be used in Daniel’s life!
*Name has been changed