Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ascension Day Behind Bars

I had no idea how big a holiday Ascension Day is around the world … until today. Government offices, schools, and some businesses are closed.

It’s funny, because I never understood the appeal of this particular Christian holiday. I understand Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those make sense. But why should we spend time on the strangest Jesus story of them all … the one where Jesus floats up into the clouds?

That’s the way I felt at least until Monday of this week, when I received a call asking if I would preach in the morning Ascension Day service at Yaounde’s Central Prison. To be honest, I didn’t know that Ascension Day merited its own worship service! But, of course, I agreed. We have begun a significant new ministry at the prison, and I try to get there as often as possible.

Last month, I appointed a young man, Jean-Daniel Ndo, to be our Prison Minister. He himself had once been incarcerated in this prison, during which time he became heavily involved with the Protestant Community, Yaounde Prison. Once he was released, he continued to show up on Sunday mornings, to help lead services and preach.

The Protestant Community is an amazing organization. It is run entirely by inmates, with very little outside help. They have a chaplain, officially appointed by the warden, but he only shows up a couple of times per year. They have an extensive network of prayer groups, choirs, and outreach groups scattered throughout the various quarters of the 4,000+ inmate facility. On Sunday mornings, they gather in a central courtyard, adjacent to the Catholic gathering, and have a worship service. They rely on outside churches to provide preachers and teachers throughout the year. Unfortunately, most of the mainline churches have abandoned the prison, and those who have shown interest are sporadic and infrequent. Often, the inmates are left without a Sunday morning preacher because the person who was supposed to preach … didn’t show up.

Jean-Daniel Ndo will hopefully change this sad situation. Starting in July, the Mission will be responsible for providing a preacher twice a month on Sunday mornings. We’ve also been asked to hold an evangelistic campaign sometime before the end of the year; and to hold teaching seminars on Saturday afternoons.

I love preaching at the prison every chance I get. For one, they’re the biggest crowds I’ve ever preached to – over 400 people. And it’s a true challenge. After all, what does a white American say to a crowd of incarcerated Cameroonians? How do I put the Gospel a bit differently, so that they can truly hear? What do you say to someone who has very little hope about the future?

This morning, after managing to get something out of my mouth at the pulpit, we were led to the tiny Protestant Community office, where a banquet was spread before us, prepared specially by the women. Leah and I were shocked – here we were in a prison, where food is at a premium, and they were feeding us!

I sense that the true future of our mission, as Methodist Christians in Cameroon, is located right there in the middle of Prison Centrale, where thousands of men and 200 women are crammed into one city block. Life here is raw, ragged, claustrophobic. Which means that God’s presence is especially near.

After all, Jesus said that this was the kind of place close to his own heart. He told that parable about the sheep and goats, in which the dividing line between the two had something to do with visiting “the least of these” in prison. In another place, Jesus defined his mission as being to “preach good news to the poor … and set the prisoner free.”

And we mustn’t forget that Jesus himself was a prisoner. It wasn’t for long. But he knew what it meant to be forsaken and abandoned.

On a day which celebrates someone floating into heaven, I sure found my feet solidly on the ground.