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Friday, October 14, 2005

UPDATE FOR OCTOBER 2005

Harold went to prison, but he did not come out...the same person. In connection with a convention held at Prato, near Florence, Harold and three other evangelists (Vittorio Vitalone, Franco Verardi, Giuseppe De Marco) accepted the invitation to enter the state prison to evangelize for a few hours among the prisoners. Mario Baldini, member of the Prato church, goes into this prison daily as a volunteer to help with rehabilitation, establishing credibility, and demonstrating the love of Jesus. The State does not recognize the churches of Christ in Italy, so its rules do not allow us to place chaplains in the prisons. Volunteer social workers, however, who have a clear project connected with rehabilitation of the inmates, may work there freely. Mario offered bonsai classes and other lessons and now everyone knows him, the guards, the administration and above all, the prisoners.
The prison director and administrator took plenty of time with us to evaluate us, especially since one of us had a prison record, and we might have turned out to be "religious nuts." We seemed normal enough, so he personally guided us through the prison, and gave us a chance to meet with prisoners working in a small internal factory preparing hospital gowns. We enjoyed about an hour of establishing relationships with some of the men and talking one-on-one. Time did not permit us to talk with everyone, so, at the end, the director called the prisoners together, and Mario explained in down-to-earth language, that we did not do this for pay, but because the love of Christ leads us to do it. The prisoners gathered round, Giuseppe De Marco prayed for the whole group, prisoners and guards alike. His prayer reflected his prison record before conversion, and deeply impressed the guard and the director: "I was one of you, and Jesus changed my life; he can do the same for you."
Later, Mario confided that this was no "showcase tour," because we saw nothing more than what he saw day after day for years now.
Little did we know what effect our all-too-brief, informal encounter would have on the prison staff and on the inmates. Here are some quick impressions of this marvelous experience:
We have seen many doors closed in Italy, but Jesus threw those prison doors wide open so we could walk in. The Gospel is about the Incarnation, and it was so easy to incarnate our Lord in this simple, practical way.
Harold mused, "I saw myself both in the guards and in the prisoners. As a minister of God, I could identify with the guards, because we were ministers of God and, three times in one paragraph, the apostle Paul calls the ministry of justice ?ministers of God? (Ro. 13:1-5), and that made those prison guards my colleagues!
"I saw myself in the prisoners, because I saw myself as fellow sinner. In fact, I noticed two differences between them and me: first, my sins did not happen to be punishable by law, and some of theirs did; but God sees us all as sinners. So, either way, I was as imperfect as any of them. Upon seeing a criminal, someone once commented: "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I thought, "Yes, that's me alright."
The second difference was very striking: we have Jesus and His Gospel of grace (as over against trying to be "good enough to make it?", and so we had some very good news to share with those men.
The prison director asked Mario, "Have your men ever worked in other prisons before?" Mario answered, "No, this is their first time." The director was taken aback, because he sensed in our men an openness to the prisoners and a peace that he had not encountered in professional "rehabilitation" groups. Yet, all we did was just what we normally do: talk as saved sinners to fellow sinners about where to find the grace of Christ.
One last reflection: entering or exiting this prison seemed like a mere formality, because we went from one world of sinners to another and back again in the same day. In fact, there is no prison sentence as long or binding, as one of our own prejudices, which we have never examined. We have all met church people "on the outside" who were imprisoned by prejudices every bit as binding as the steel bars that held our men. Who then is really in prison? These too we must bring to freedom in Christ.
Enid went street evangelizing with other Christian women. Other men from the convention, who did not work in the prison, went out in the streets to evangelize too.
Pray that the Lord will open up more such doors for the Gospel, and raise up laborers to take on these jobs.