It is difficult for me to put into words what I witnessed last night. A dozen brothers, wearing orange jumpsuits, leaders and influential inmates, completed their 40 Days to Freedom. In this POPP program, they study iconic peacemakers from around the world: King, Gandhi, Mandela, etc. Every day they meditate on quotes from these famous freedom fighters; they have daily action challenges which they are expected to complete, things very hard to accomplish in a jail or prison setting; every day they end the day reflecting on what they learned, and what they accomplished. Tonight was their graduation. They shared their papers on their Champion of Peace; they earned certificates; they shared poetry and spoken word. Then they had a feast, at least it was a feast for them. Pizza, cake, cookies, and soft drinks—things that they haven’t had in a very long time. We laughed, we cried, and we celebrated. Free world guests such as a Police Chief, City Councilman, Deputy Sheriff, and other Officers saw what blew their minds. How could they know the brilliance, depth, and beauty hiding inside of these men? They rarely if ever get a chance to shine in these places. Now the real work begins, as they get ready to transition to prison or back to the free world… I love these brothers of mine, we have become close over the eight weeks we have been together, and I am so proud of them. The Power of Peace.
This a powerful story that is hard to communicate in just a few words how amazing it really is, but I will try. Just three weeks ago fifty men in a tough Mexican prison began the Power of Peace Project’s “40 Days of Peace” Program. Many of these men are affiliated with gangs and cartels and many are rivals. In this prison, the men are packed twenty to a cell because it was built for 2500 but currently houses 5600 inmates. All these men went through the two day launch with us, signed the peace pledge, received the wristband and a journal, and committed to forty days of nonviolence– with daily journaling and action challenges, weekly small groups with their rivals, and a paper writing assignment that will precede a graduation celebration at the end of the project. In three short weeks this was an issue that came up this past week in the weekly meeting: out of the fifty men, only one man (named Julio) is not in a cell with any of the other POPP initiates. The cell he is packed into has no other POPP brothers and he is the only one with the wristband and journal—and he stands out. One of the brothers stood up and said: “Our brother Julio is all alone in his cell! What can we do to protect him?” My partner Jeff asked why he was in a cell all alone. They responded: “He’s not all alone, he just doesn’t have any Power of Peace brothers with him.” I am in awe. In three short weeks, these men are concerned that their brother is “all alone” because he is not surrounded by the POPP group. They have already owned it and are protecting it. Imagine what could happen over months and years… The Power of Peace.
Tonight at Hays State Prison the following story was told about Frank, one of our Power of Peace Leaders who was shipped out to another prison two weeks ago. One of our other POPP Brothers was there and witnessed it before he was sent back to Hays this week… The day that Frank arrived, he went to chow at the usual time. When he returned, he realized that somebody had stolen all his store goods out of his box– this is a very big deal, especially when you are new to a prison. There were about fifteen Hispanic inmates there who knew Frank from other prisons and who he is cool with. They decided they were ready to “go to war” to get his stuff back, as everyone knew who was behind the theft. Before anything could happen, Frank got all those men together and got his “40 Days of Peace” journal out and began to teach them the nonviolent principles he was practicing in the program, and how there were other alternatives to violence. The beef was settled nonviolently and now we have more men in yet another prison who are interested in the POPP Program…
The fascinating thing? Anyone can back down and “decide to be a peacemaker” when they’re afraid and outnumbered. But Frank had the muscle and the numbers to get his stuff back AND send a message, but he still chose peace. And he began leading the other inmates and modeling peace in the process. I’m so proud of him… The Power of Peace.
I am getting “shook down” and inspected very thoroughly as I get through the gate in a Mexican maximum security prison. There are guards high above, up on the walls with AK-47s. This is where high risk inmates deep in the heart of Mexico are incarcerated. I am not sure what to expect as I prepare to speak to about three hundred convicts dressed in khaki uniforms. I am accompanied by my friend and mentor Johnny Moffitt , a former motorcycle gang member from Texas. Having been locked up in the seventies, he loves convicts and they love him. He has been doing this for almost forty years and has been in prisons all over the world. He and I met when we were booked to speak at the same prison ministry conference in Orlando and were mistakenly put in the same room, and literally had to sleep in beds that were four feet from one another. We have been friends ever since.
Speaking with an interpreter is an interesting experience. There is a rhythm that develops and it becomes like a dance. Unlike speaking to American audiences, you have time to think of your next sentence for longer than usual. The inmates look at you, then look at the translator and respond. There is a delay before they laugh or cheer and it is fun to wait for it. These men are intense and hanging on every word. In the crowd I know there are cartel members, drug dealers and murderers, but they are not what you would imagine. After the message, they line up to come and pay their respects and ask questions; more so than in U.S. prisons. They are so grateful, at least they were with us. I would not know how they act when we leave or before we come; I just know that around us there is a mutual respect and dignity, regardless of our differences.
Our host is a beautiful evangelical church in Puebla, about an hour from Mexico City. The pastor there is a former Miss Mexico and she and her husband lead a ministry that is exploding with a number of different locations in multiple cities with tens of thousands of converts. Because her churches are not mainstream and are growing so fast, she has been heavily persecuted by the more powerful religious denominations down there as well as those practicing the occult. There have been plots to kidnap her and kill her from time to time, and they live on a compound with high walls and armed guards to protect them. But still she boldly preaches and her churches continue to grow. Her driver is a former government body guard who now works for her to provide protection and security. We preached at her church several times while in Puebla and our team stayed on the compound. These were the most hospitable Christians I have ever met, and I have met them all around the world.
What made this trip a little different and definitely more difficult was the fact that I had broken my shoulder pretty badly just a few days before this trip. The doctor had told me that I shouldn’t travel and that I would need surgery to repair the broken shoulder joint. Well, there was no way that I was going to cancel this trip and that was all there was to it. So he set me up with a super-sling that not only kept my arm in the right slot but also wrapped around me and held my arm tight against my body. With a little pharmaceutical help, I was on my way to Mexico. I figured it would only help in some of the dangerous places we were going!
That Friday evening we had a large worship service in this mega-church. I had mentioned to Pastor Sheets, who was leading our team, that I wanted him to have our team pray that I wouldn’t need surgery when I got back to the states, because I didn’t have time for it. Pastor Sheets has been preaching all over the world for over fifty years and has done this type of service many, many times. He began by saying to the large audience “The Lord spoke to me this evening, and He told me that we needed to have a healing service. You see we have this young man on our team who recently broke his shoulder. The doctors have told him that it will require surgery, but he doesn’t agree with that. Tonight we are going to pray for him.” Now you must understand that I wasn’t raised in this type of church. These were Holy Ghost Christians and just didn’t fit into my box. I was quite uncomfortable that he had called me out. He went on: “I’d like to ask this young man to stand up, right there on the front row.” I was embarrassed, and my face turned blood red. I reluctantly stood up and they began to cheer for me. I wanted to sit back down, but then he started to sing in one of the most beautiful voices of prayer that I had ever heard.
I still didn’t believe in what he was doing, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of this beautiful gesture. Slowly, one by one, beautiful Latino worshippers began making their way to the front and they began to lay their hands on my shoulder. I was resisting gently, until I finally closed my eyes and endured it. Suddenly I heard what seemed to be a very clear voice, but no one was speaking to me. It said, “Are you really going to be so arrogant that you do not accept the gift that I am trying to give you?” I slowly lifted my good arm above my head and just let go. I focused on the song, the vibe, and the spirit of this wonderful, loving congregation and went with it. We finished that night with lots of hugs and a few tears, and then we continued with our prison tour. I can’t tell you that my shoulder was immediately healed, for that is not my story. But I can tell you that when I went back to the Emory University Specialist in Atlanta upon my return, he looked at the new x-rays and scans and told me that I did not need surgery any more. Today my right shoulder, the one that I had broken, is much stronger and more mobile than my left shoulder. I had learned a very valuable lesson: stop thinking you know when you don’t know, and stop trying to put Him into your own box. He doesn’t live in boxes, nor does He fit.
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Right now the Power of Peace Project has convicts from Michigan, Georgia