“The Lord gets His best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.” -Charles H. Spurgeon
When I used to think about things that were holy, pure, and lovely, my mind never drifted to prisons. I never associated the love of God with a criminal or a place of worship with a jail cell bathroom. My distorted understanding of purity and holiness revolved around vintage church pews, slow organ music, and priests who wore funny outfits that looked like tablecloths.
Then God broke my heart and renewed my perspective. My hands and my feet first needed to get dirty and sore before I could experience love in it’s truest, purest, and freest form. He had to send me to some dark places in South Africa to finally wake me up to the truth of the gospel, and one of those places happens to be a venue where freedom isn’t supposed to exist.
One of my favorite sayings as of late is, “Hey, sorry friend, I can’t hang out today because I’m going to prison,” and then I savor the look of surprise and concern on their face before I explain why. I love going to prison. I love it because it makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. I love it because every time I am willing to get in my car and drive 40 minutes to meet with the boys, God goes before me to pave the way for something amazing. I love it because I’ve gained a bunch of new brothers to do life with, and I love it because even though I go with the intention of teaching and pouring out my own wisdom and knowledge, I am the one being taught and poured into by the boys.
When I spend time with the guys, I am surrounded by so much love to the point where it’s almost overwhelming. I get to witness changed lives, freedom from past mistakes, and hope. Hope Academy (the name couldn’t be more appropriate) is only one small section of Drakenstein Prison, and before I am able to go into the boy’s room where we do bible studies and life skill sessions, I have to walk through another section of the prison first. It’s usually in that place where I am faced with some loud whistling and hollering by the other boys who aren’t staying in the Academy. But once I cross over into where our team stays, I am greeted with respect, gentleness, and kindness.
The boys in Hope Academy are a part of the Ambassadors Football program. They teach and uphold important values that focus on Faith, Football, and Future. Most of these guys know Jesus, and when I walk into their room, I can feel it and see it in the smiles on their faces. I get to leave that prison each afternoon with a full heart because it’s a place where grace and forgiveness reign supreme. I am humbled to have the privilege of building relationships with men who were once known as murderers, robbers, and gangsters, but are now godly warriors and men of integrity. Playing football (aka. soccer for the Americans) with them twice a week on their rocky and uneven field in the back of the jail is an honor and a joy (even though I can barely keep up with them).
I have been asked by a few friends if I am ever afraid to go into the prison, and my answer is always the same. No, I’m not afraid because love always casts out fear. If love is present, then God is present (because God is love), and that means there is nothing for me to be afraid of. I think it’s so cool that someone I might have feared or steered clear of in the past can now be called my South African brother (from another mother). It’s beautiful, it’s redemptive, and it’s eye opening.
The team of guys at Hope Academy remind me that no one is beyond the reach of our God. No one is too far gone to be healed or forgiven. No one is too broken, too dirty, too sinful, or too guilty to be known and loved by the Creator of the universe. And I’ll be honest, that truth punches me in the gut every now and then because I can be so quick to judge others for their mistakes. Not only am I hard on others, I can also be incredibly hard on myself. So, lately, I’ve asked God to strip me of my judgements, my stereotypes, my criticisms, and my generalizations. I have asked Him to help me see the world (including myself) through His loving and perfect eyes.
And I must admit, so far … He’s been faithful every step of the way.