J Lee Grady (Fire In My Bones, Charisma Magazine) stood in front of 600 male inmates at a prison in Izalco, El Salvador. The men were dressed in white T-shirts and white drawstring pants, and many of them sported tattoos on their faces and necks. All the men were members of violent gangs when they were incarcerated. About 20% of them were affiliated with the MS-13 gang—a group known for horrific attacks on women, children and police officers.
Yet he felt no fear as he looked out over the crowd and shared a message from Luke 15 about the prodigal son. Most of the men were carrying Bibles, and when he announced his text, they immediately turned to the passage. They yelled, “Amen,” or “Gloria a Dios,” when Grady stressed an important point. And they clapped and cheered when he reminded them that the kosher Jewish father in the story welcomed his wayward son home even though the boy smelled like pigs.
Almost every prisoner in this huge group became a Christian after arriving at the Izalco prison. Two churches now operate inside the facility, pastored by men who were once tough criminals. All the men now gather for Bible study every day, they hold prayer and fasting vigils, and they are helping each other to grow spiritually.
When the men worshipped on Monday, six guys used plastic paint tubs for drums while an inmate with a huge smile led the praise choruses. The men sang louder and with more passion you would see in most churches in the outside world.
“Our government is encouraging this movement,” says Oscar David Benavides, director of the prison. He says in 2016 he was allowed to encourage evangelism among inmates. When men experienced conversions, he intentionally moved them into buildings where there were non-Christian inmates.
Faith was never forced on anyone, but more and more men began to find Jesus in a chain reaction of grace. The new converts changed dramatically. They were no longer angry and depressed. They became cooperative and friendly. Their frowns turned to smiles.
Today, El Salvador’s government leaders see evidence that Christianity is good for violent offenders.
No serious crimes have occurred inside the Izalco facility since the prison revival began. The inmates treat each other with respect, even though they were affiliated with rival gangs. “The transformation is an obvious miracle,” Oscar Benavides says.
In the United States, Grady said, “We are skittish about mixing government and religion. We don’t want prayer in schools. We don’t want the Bible to influence public policy. And yet our prisons are so dangerous they are like hell on earth. A report released last year by The New Republic said 428 inmates died in Florida’s prisons in 2017, hundreds have died in prisons in Oregon and Washington since 2008, and the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violence has doubled in Alabama in the past five years.
Grady said, “he is not going to hold his breath until America’s prison officials try El Salvador’s method of reform – JESUS”. But asks, “Why wouldn’t we?” In this tiny Central American nation—the only country in the world named after Jesus Christ—a true miracle has happened. We are foolish to ignore it.”