Saturday, June 11, 2005

A Prison Story

The following story also appears in "The Yellow Star," the official missionary newsletter of the Magruder family, which was just distributed last week. If you would like a copy, email me at, and I'll send you a pdf copy:

Jean-Daniel Ndo is a young, smart-looking Cameroonian who often wears a dark suit that is clearly two sizes too big. Yet he walks with a kind of assurance and maturity that belie his age and clothes.

Ndo is the new prison minister of the United Methodist Church in Cameroon, having been recently appointed by the Mission Office. He’s only been out of prison for half a year himself, after serving eight months in Yaounde’s Central Prison. Ndo had been convicted of being an accomplice to “escroquerie,” or swindling, a kind of white-collar crime that is common in the world’s eighth-most corrupt country.

While serving his term in the nation’s largest correctional facility, along with 4,000 others, Ndo became involved with the Protestant Community inside. When he walked out of the prison on December 21, 2004, he decided that he had to return – this time as a minister of the Gospel, but informed by his own experience.

“The most difficult thing about going to prison is being a new prisoner,” he remembers. “In the beginning, you are afraid of everybody.” Ndo tried to make friends with veteran prisoners for protection, and carefully searched prisoners’ faces for signs of friendliness and sanity.

Central Prison is divided up into numerous quarters, or neighborhoods, some of which hold a minimum number of inmates at a maximum level of comfort. These are usually former government ministers or wealthy businessmen. But other quarters hold hundreds of men; some small cells, the size of college dorm rooms, sleep up to forty men. This claustrophobic atmosphere breeds mistrust, chaos, and fear. Violence often broke out – amongst inmates and guards.

Furthermore, the prison serves only one meal a day – a broth consisting of water-soaked corn, which Ndo insists is “not for a human being.” Three times a week, inmates are allowed to receive visitors, usually family members who bring food and other necessities. Those without family or friends in the prison are obliged to eat what the prison serves, which is simply not enough to sustain life over a long stretch of time.

But Ndo was also surprised to find a highly-organized, spiritually-enriching, Word-centered community of Christians.

Ndo had become a Christian ten years prior, after he moved to Yaounde from his village. After being raised a nominal Catholic, Ndo had became sick as a teenager, “the kind of sick where you go to the hospital and they say nothing is wrong,” as he puts it. He experienced temporary paralysis of parts of his body, and suffered terrible nightmares. He attributes the sickness to works of witchcraft performed against him; so he moved in with the local witchdoctor for two months for relief. While there, the witchdoctor used traditional cures, such as putting boiled leaves on his skin and anointing him with various oils and powders. Ndo’s health improved slightly.

One day his sister in Yaounde called him; she begged him to move in with her. “We have good witchdoctors in Yaounde, too,” she told him.

When he informed the witchdoctor that he was leaving, the healer gave him a small bottle of oil for protection. Ndo slipped it into his pocket.

He moved to Yaounde, and into his sister’s house. She mentioned that the church down the street also offered prayer for sick people. She often attended herself, because she was barren and was hoping to get pregnant. Ndo remembers that he answered, “If they can heal me, I’ll go.”

Ndo began attending services at the Pentecostal church, where he recognized one of the pastors as an old schoolmate of his. When he went up for prayer, the pastor asked him if he was holding anything that had been given to him from a witchdoctor. Ndo pulled out the bottle of oil and gave it to him. After receiving prayer, Ndo reported that his health began to change and he began to sleep better.

After months of attending services, Ndo finally became a Christian and consented to become baptized. Over the following years, Ndo attended Bible school, worked as a preacher and evangelist throughout the southern part of Cameroon, and even ordained as a pastor in a Pentecostal denomination.

Thus, when Ndo arrived in Central Prison, he found himself looking for Christian fellowship. He found it in the Protestant Community, an impressive organization made up entirely of inmates. The Community has an elected organizing council, and a number of committees which meet for various purposes, including Christian education, finances, evangelism, and music. On Sunday mornings, the Protestants meet for worship in an outdoor space with a guest preacher from a Yaounde-area church. During the week, each quarter has its own cell group meeting, and four different choirs rehearse for Sunday morning.

The prison chaplain discovered that Ndo had been a preacher. He asked Ndo what church he had come from. Ndo didn’t want to say “Pentecostal,” because he didn’t want to return to the Pentecostal tradition. He suddenly remembered an acquaintance named Jean-Daniel Billong who used to talk about his new-found church with great enthusiasm, the United Methodist Church. So Ndo, somewhat mischievously answered, “Well, I am in the process of joining the United Methodists!”

The chaplain accepted his answer and asked him to preach regularly in the prison. The prisoners found that Ndo was a different kind of preacher – he spoke plainly and with conviction. He preached often in the prison, until the day he was set free.

And when he was free, he headed directly to the Mission Office. “Because I had used the name of the church without permission, I wanted to open the door for the Mission, even if they didn’t want to involve me,” Ndo said. “But Pastor Billong received me well, and encouraged me.”

In April, the Mission officially appointed Ndo as pastor to Central Prison, and asked him to begin a cell group in his home.

“My big hope is that many people in that prison will come to know Christ; it will be my joy to know that the full gospel has been preached to people who don’t know God,” he said. “My other hope is the promotion of the United Methodist Church in Cameroon, because the prison is a big source of information. Many inmates have made an attachment to the United Methodist Church. Even the president of the Protestant Community has already told me, ‘The day I go outside, I will become a Methodist!’”