He walks into the room, handcuffed, escorted by the guard that brought him from his 5’x9’ cell on L line of solitary confinement at Darrington Maximum Security Prison. From head to toe his body is covered with prison tattoos. The teardrop tattoos around his eyes symbolize murder – taking the life of another man.
The guard hands him off to our team and we allow him to say a few words of thanks to the prisoners celebrating behind the cage – the ones who have shared the Gospel and demonstrated to him the love of Jesus, but aren’t allowed to have physical contact with him. Now his eyes swell with real tears – symbolizing the suffering Lamb of God who died for the forgiveness of his sins and has transformed him from the inside out. We guide him into the portable baptismal, and soon he rises from the water to the sounds of cheers filling the room – his face glowing with the full awareness of the radical lifechange his baptism represents.
Today we baptized 13 men just like this…in the past year Sugar Creek has baptized 77 men in solitary confinement at Darrington. Next month, the new Warden, embracing the movement of God breaking out, will allow the inmates who discipled the men to conduct the baptisms for the first time.
At Coffield Prison in Palestine TX, the largest prison in the state, over 225 disciple making groups meet weekly in every living area of the prison. They average 30-40 baptisms each month.
One of the inmate leaders of this movement, in for life with no parole, was recently transferred to Darrington. Last week he began a 12-week high intensity, high accountability group disciple-making training at Darrington…the 40 participants are already starting groups throughout the general population.
There are over 100 men on the wait list to attend this training…a genuine movement of God is taking place – no man can control it, nor take credit for it since this is the unstoppable, unshakable Kingdom of God! The fruit of surrender to the Spirit – obedience to the Word of God – and pursuit of the mission of No Place Left where the Gospel has penetrated every person in the prison and beyond!
Find out more about this movement of God: 182-NoPlaceLeft Behind Bars.
Read the case study and others in The Rise and Fall of Movements.
I’m following the story of multiplying movements in the prisons of Rio de Janeiro as told by Andrew Johnson.
We’ve seen how prison Pentecostalism provides broken men with dignity and the hope of a new life in community.
Johnson went behind bars and witnessed how Rio’s most stigmatized residents, had built a church where they experienced joy, brotherhood, and dignity in one of the city’s most apparently god-forsaken places.
How do these prison churches survive and function?
The prison churches were independent, self-sustaining organizations. They set the membership bar high. Members are easy to identify, they dress differently, they quit drugs, and spend them time studying the Bible.
Many gang members have parents, aunts, cousins, and siblings who are active in Pentecostal churches. The social and class diﬀerences that exist between gang members and other institutions—the government, politics, universities, middle-class employment, for example—do not exist between the gangs and the Pentecostals in poor neighborhoods. And conversely, many pastors and active Pentecostal church leaders were once gang members themselves or have family members currently in the gang.
According to Johnson, the relationship between Pentecostal churches and the narco-gangs is characterized by mutual respect. The Pentecostals do not challenge the gang’s power in their neighborhoods. Nor do they condone the gang’s drug traﬃc, violence, and hedonism. They treat gang members as people worthy of redemption.
The gangs in turn command their members to treat the church members and pastors with respect and to acknowledge their authority in the community.
As long as the Pentecostals were known as a group who practiced what they preached, they would be protected from prison violence and allowed to occupy space in the prison.
Dignity is my central argument and I contend that dignity is the driving force behind Pentecostal practice inside of the prison and jails I studied.
I’m following the story of the spread of Pentecostalism in the jails and favelas of Rio de Janeiro as told by Andrew Johnson.
We’ve seen how Pentecostalism adapts to the local environment and produces local leaders. But what’ the appeal of Pentecostalism in the first place?
As a sociologist Johnson argues it’s about the transformation of identity,
“Pentecostalism resonates so deeply with inmates like Carlos because it oﬀers a belief system and a set of practices that enable an inmate to embody a new, publicly recognizable identity and a platform for prisoners to live a moral and digniﬁed life both in prison and after they are released.”
Johnson witnessed firsthand how,
“Through their actions the Pentecostal pastors and volunteers literally embodied their belief that regardless of whether the inmates in Rio’s prisons were innocent or guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted, they were human beings worthy of redemption and deserving certain fundamental rights.
Faith in Christ enabled these desperate men in appalling conditions “to reject annihilation and aﬃrm a terrible right to live.”
No government or social program can meet a prisoner’s deepest need. Only in Christ can they become a new creation—forgiven and set free to live a new life in him in the fellowship of God’s people behind bars.
“The church is ours. It belongs to those of us on the inside.”
I’m following the story of Pentecostalism’s impact in Brazil’s prisons as told by Andrew Johnson. Only a movement could thrive in such a harsh environment.
Throughout Latin America, Pentecostalism flourishes because it adapts itself to the local culture and produces local leaders.
Pentecostalism thrives behind bars because it has adapted to this harsh environment by taking on the structure and function of the prison gangs.
According to Johnson,
“Both gang and prison church claim part of the prison as their own, each implements and enforces a set of rules for their members, and each provides a strong identity to participants and oﬀers them protection and community.”
The music in the churches has the same beat as the music in the streets, and pastors preach in the same language used in conversations at the bus stop, in corner cafés, and in the local markets. Leaders can rise from the congregations without having to go through seminaries or other educational institutions that are available to the middle and upper classes but largely closed to others.
The incarcerated leader preaches, sings, prays, fasts, suﬀers, and praises alongside the other church members. Inmates not only set the vision for the future of the prison churches, they also negotiate with gang and prison oﬃcials and make themselves available to meet the spiritual and sometimes physical and emotional needs of inmates twenty-four hours a day.