What I learned from the worst prison in Mexico

By Brian Bakke

My dear Mexican pastor friend Emilio Beltran (who has lived in the most notorious prison in Mexico for the past 6 years) handed me two Mustard Seed Foundation grant applications while we were meeting together in Reclusorio Oriente prison last month. I work for this Foundation, seeking out projects that we can fund to help new evangelism, discipleship, and economic development projects in the world’s megacities.

One application is from the church planted outside the prison walls last December, and another is from the collective of 11 congregations (one in each of the massive cell blocks in the prison) Emilio has planted inside the prison since last February.

Since my visit into the prison with Emilio I have had a month of back and forth with the lead pastor of the new church on the outside, who has taken my questions back to Emilio inside the prison for answers, and sent the answers back to me by email.

The MSF Board will decide on these two grant applications: Adulam Reclusorio (prison) and Adulam Contreras (outside the prison) at the next Board Meeting in April. The grant application from inside Reclusorio Oriente is the first grant application MSF has ever received which were written from inside a prison by inmates.

You would love the listing of the Adulam Reclusorio’s elder board called “ Men of the Table”:

  •  Oscar has served 8 months of a 6 year sentence for aggravated domestic violence with injury
  • Juan has served 8 years of a 40 year sentence for kidnapping
  • David has served 1.5 years of a 9 year sentence for attempted murder
  • Moises has served 6 years of a 37 year sentence for murder
  • Juan Carlos Fortin Moreno has served 2 years of a 9 year sentence for sexual assault of children and trafficking
  • Carlos has served 5 years of a 7.5 sentence for kidnapping and extortion
  • Jorge has served 2 years of an 8 year sentence for grand theft
  • Luis has served 5 years of a 20 year sentence for attempted murder
  • And my dear brother Emilio. He has served 5 years of a 137 year sentence (reduced to 23 years) on three charges: Corruption of minors (sexually assaulting children); Child slavery (using children as workers for personal profit); and Organized crime (conspiracy by all the Adulam Casa de Refugio orphanage staff).

The first grant application is asking for a one-time grant to help establish the new church in the Contreras District of Mexico City. This church was started last December. The congregation is made up of recovering addicts, homeless, orphans and ex-convicts that found Christ and were mentored by Emilio while incarcerated. It meets under a tarp in the outdoor ‘garden area’ of a rented social/nightclub on Sunday mornings.

The second application is from the prison church and asks for a one-time award to help establish a creative workshop in the prison so that the men with a natural gift in art can begin making crafts for sale inside and outside the prison. This workshop will fully employ more than 25 men by the end of this calendar year, provide for the ‘taxes’ required by the church to hold services in the prison, and buy more materials to expand the workshop.

The Mustard Seed Foundation requires a match of money given by a local congregation in the neighborhood of ministry in order to receive our funding.

These two grant applications do not ask the MSF to match the giving of wealthy donors or megachurches from the USA.

Instead the Foundation will be asked to match the giving from the tithes and offerings of the congregation itself: the men trapped inside one of the worst prisons in Latin America for the craft project; and ex-convicts, mentally ill, addicts, and their families on the outside for the first new church outside the prison.

At first glance one might think this to be impossible or even stupid.

But the truth is the men inside this prison tithe and give offerings each day for the work of the Gospel in the prison. They have come to live with the understanding that nothing they own belongs to them.

Whatever they do have is freely shared with the rest of the brothers so that those that do not have anything to give can survive for that very day. As in other prison churches I have visited in Latin America, the members of this church tithe above 50% of all they have. If this sounds familiar in some remote way it is because it mirrors the way the first church tithed as recorded in the New Testament record in Acts Chapter 2, verses 42 – 47.

Some of the men in this church have family members close by who come to visit and give gifts for the men to sell inside the prison. These fortunate enough for such gifts been able to start a small business inside the prison selling socks, pencils, gum, or other trinkets, so they can afford food, clothing, and the ‘street taxes’ (bribes) required just to exist in this hell hole.

Now imagine a church that meets in this hell that has 12 worship services each day, while surrounded by drug dealing, prostitution, and violent assault happening just a few feet from the tarp under which the Adulam Reclusorio congregation gathers.

Imagine an entire congregation in Bible study, discipleship, and worship every day.

Imagine prayer vigils that last the night in bug and rat infested cells where 26 men are pushed into a space designed for 6.

Imagine convicted murders and rapists sharing their food with each other as they eat together as a new family.

Try to imagine a baptism service, where the men being baptized hop into a re-purposed oil drum and are dunked straight down into really cold brackish water.

Imagine the men accepting their prison sentence as an opportunity to focus on the important things of life, how to honor God.

Imagine men who from the margins of society entering into a 5, 10, 15 year discipleship raining course under the leadership of one of this world’s greatest pastors who just happens to be an inmate suffering right along with the other church members.

Imagine the leaders being formed in this prison that have the attitude of “If I can be reborn and thrive in a hell hole like this, watch what happens when I am released from prison!”

Imagine each released inmate being sent to Adulam Contreras Church as a church planting intern. He will submit to the leaders of Contreras (90% of whom are former inmates themselves) as he serves the homeless, mentally ill and addicted people in the congregation.

Imagine when these ex-cons are deemed ready to set out and plant another new church, not being sent out alone as often happens in the US, but with a team of likewise broken and crushed men who have been rebuilt into fearless and bold new leaders.

Imagine an imprisoned pastor being held illegally by corrupt government officials tell you with a straight face, “This is how we will plant 50 new churches by the end of 2017. And by the end of 2020 we will have planted 200 new churches all over Mexico City. And our churches will welcome the mentally ill, homeless, orphan, widow, addicted, and ex-felons….And our churches will be filled with people that know how to tithe!” The plan is that all of these new churches will have the DNA of the Contreras Church.

Imagine visiting these men in prison and receiving bone crushing hugs and tearful kisses that are so intense that the non-church member inmates watching this shameless display of affection start shouting “Hey get a room!”

Imagine each Adulam church filled with poor broken people who tithe, not out of their excess like we do (if we even bother to tithe) here in the US, but out of deep poverty, like the early Churches did as recorded in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4

Tragically I cannot imagine a Bible believing church in the US that comes anywhere near the tithing like these convicts who freely tithe more than half of all they own with great joy.

I cannot imagine a church planting movement that is not asking for millions of USD as church planting movements in the US are asking for. These two grant applications are asking for one-time donations totaling less than $15,000.

I cannot imagine more than a handful of churches in the US that have an open heart for those on the margins of society.

If God can do wonders through a group of broken men like this, imagine what God could do through a broken mess like us!

Brian Bakke is Director of Americas at the Mustard Seed Foundation.

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