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My mother-in-law, Josefina (Madre) with her husband and my daughters
celebrating Mexican Independence Day last year.


A month ago, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her name is Josefina. I call her Madre. She hadn’t been able to keep any food down for awhile and went to a few doctors seeking help, both traditional and non traditional. She lives in Mitla, Mexico, which has a largely
indigenous Zapoteco population. Many of the people in this town first
seek traditional remedies to cure their ailments, and when that does not
take care of the problem, they go to see what we would call a regular
medical doctor. Madre tried both to no avail for a couple weeks. Finally she went to a doctor who told her she needed an endoscopy. This
procedure revealed a large tumor in her stomach.

Naturally this was bad news for her and for the entire family, especially
her mom, her husband, two sons, her daughter ( my wife), and me. A
variety of tests followed to diagnose the severity of the cancer. Initially it seemed the cancer was confined to the tumor and surgery was scheduled on a Sunday. She was admitted to the hospital the day before.

Medicine and doctors and hospitals are an interesting thing in Mexico. At least interesting to me, having spent most of my life in the United States. I haven’t got it all figured out, but it seems to me that there are three levels of health care in this country; one level for people who have some money and can afford private care. Another level for people who have money taken out of their wages to pay for health insurance and are treated by public doctors and nurses in public hospitals which is free. The last level is for poor people who don’t pay for health insurance. If they have a medical need they go to the local public health clinic and are usually treated for free for basic simple health problems, but if it is serious they have to go to a public hospital and pay cash or they don’t receive treatment. Public medical services are not terrible. I have two daughters who were born in a public hospital with public doctors and nurses, with no ill effects, and it was all free, because my Mexican wife has money taken out of her wages to pay for health insurance.
A couple of problems with public health care here are long waits to see a health care professional and most of the doctors and nurses are fresh out of medical school and don’t have a lot of hands on experience. Also, in public hospitals you have to share a room with two or three other patients, and family members can’t stay with the patient for the whole time, which is important in Mexico. Family comes first in Mexico, and if one family member has to go to the hospital, at least one other member of the family moves in with them, at private hospitals that is. If it is public hospital, family members stay and sleep in the waiting room or outside the hospital.

Madre stayed at a private hospital, even though the family is poor. We thank God for GoFundMe and all the people who generously donated money and allowed Madre to receive wonderful care at a beautiful little hospital in Oaxaca. All the rooms had a large couch for family members to sit on during the day and sleep on at night. My wife slept on one during her mom’s hospital stay which was six days. Sometimes Madre’s mother, husband, son and family friends were all there at once! It wasn’t as bad as it may seem because this was the most unique hospital I have ever seen. It only had eight rooms and used to be like a convent or little monestary operated by a Catholic organizations about a 100 years ago. Then it went into the hands of St. Vincent DePaul Society run by a guy named Vasconcelos, and now it is Vasconcelos hospital. It has a chapel called Sacred Heart which is open to the public on special occasions. In the middle of this hospital is a courtyard with potted bougainvilleas and patio furniture all around for family and friends to take advantage of.

The first couple weeks after the surgery was difficult, because of physical and emotional reasons. Physically she vomited what little food she was able to swallow and became dehydrated and had to go to the emergency room. Emotionally it was a difficult time because the tumor and samples of her stomach tissue that was taken out of her went to a lab and it was discovered that the cancer had spread. She found out she has stage three cancer and the prognosis isn’t that great. Chemotherapy is in her near future.
Now she is doing much better, both physically and emotionally and spiritually. She is eating a lot more and keeps it all down. Emotionally she is happier. Spiritually she has always been strong. She doesn’t understand why she has had to go through all this, none of us do. But she fully trusts in the Lord who has given her the peace that surpasses all understanding that Paul writes about in Philippians 4:7.
I have been thinking about Psalm 23 a lot lately, especially the “valley of the shadow of death” part. I think we all love the opening verses that speak of green pastures, quiet waters and refreshing souls. The “shadow of death”, not so much. But I have come to realize that for the sheep to enjoy those rich, green pastures and cool, quiet waters, they sometimes have to travel through the valley of the shadow of death. The Good Shepherd knows best. He knows where the nutritious food and refreshing drink is, and his sheep know his voice and confidently follow him into and through the scary, dark valley, to green pastures and still waters. They trust him because he is wise and strong. They have no fear because He is with them, and he wields a stout rod and sturdy staff.
That’s the faith of Madre. As she journeys through the dark valley, she fears no evil but trusts in her good, good Shepherd; her good, good Father. No one knows what she will encounter on the other side of the valley. Maybe many happy, healthy years on planet earth, or maybe eternity in heaven with the Lord. Whatever happens it’s all good. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but she knows WHO holds the future.


This year Foundation For His Ministry celebrates fifty years of ministry to the poorest of the poor in

Charla Pereau

Charla Pereau

Mexico.  My first close encounter of this fine organization took place in 1987.  I was working with a youth group in a small church in Healdsburg, California.  I had just moved there from Missouri, where I attended a church that went to Mexico every year to build church buildings for congregations that had no buildings.  I went on three of these excursions and got hooked on Mexico.

Living in California, I was looking for a way to get back to Mexico and expose the youth in the little church to the poverty in Mexico and show them how they could be a part of helping those much less fortunate than they were.  I remembered a couple from my Missouri church who mentioned one time that they had gone to a home for needy children in Mexico.  I contacted them and found out about FFHM and their work in the Baja of Mexico, and how to make arrangements to volunteer for a week.  I got a hold of  FFHM and told them we wanted to help.  After awhile the details were ironed out, and we found ourselves in Vicente Guerrero, Baja, in the summer of 1987.

Two people I remember.  Max, the administrator, a great guy from Canada, and Jorge, a little baby that had recently come to live at the children’s home.  We went on a tour of the place and I fell in love with it,  and the organization behind it.  I had recently graduated from Bible college with a degree in Missions, having wanted to be a missionary since I was 14 years old.  After graduating, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one anymore.  To be a missionary in the denomination I belonged to, you had to spend at least a year going all over the U.S. of A raising thousands of dollars in support, and then go minister in a foreign country for four years, and then go home and get more money for another four years of service.  That wasn’t for me.  I wanted to go to another country, preferably Mexico, and just live there and serve and not worry about money.  So I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the mission field if that was what it took.

I was excited to learn that Charla, who started the home for needy children, and the board of FFHM, had a different approach to missions.  They believed that any Christian who had a desire to help the poorest of the poor, could fill out an application and if accepted, could just come and serve.  They provided a place to stay and food to eat and gave people a few dollars as well.  What could be better?  Nothing that I could think of!  I hoped that one day I would be a permanent part of this fine organization that not only took care of the physical, educational and spiritual needs of about 80 children, but also reached out to thousands of migrant workers who lived in camps that surrounded the mission, with food, clothes and most importantly, the Gospel, the good news of a great God who loved them and wanted them to be happy.  FFHM also provided medical services in a medical clinic  on the property, with expertly trained doctors and nurses.  They also had a dental clinic and tended to  many patients everyday.  This place was incredible!

I returned almost every year, for the next 15 years, to spend a week helping out in whatever way I could, like so many countless volunteers have done over the fifty years of FFHM’s existence.  I have always loved gardening and looked forward to working in the experimental orchard or the macadamia nut grove when I was there.  But, as often as not, I would be put to work cleaning shelves in the pantry, pouring concrete or painting buildings.  It didn’t really matter what I did.  I just loved cooperating with God and making a difference in the Kingdom.

One year the mission was raising pigs and I met a super guy in charge of the project named Mario.  I raised pigs for 4-H when I was a kid and loved it.  I thought Mario had the best job in the whole place, and hoped that someday, when I joined FFHM permanently, that I would get to be the hog farmer!  Mario went on to be the administrator of the Baja mission for decades.

I always wanted to meet Charla, to see this incredible woman in the flesh, and per chance, to talk to her and tell her how much I admired her and the work she was doing on behalf of the poor in Mexico.  Every year as I made my trek to the Mecca of ministry in the Baja, I would think that maybe this would be the year that I would encounter Charla.  One of the highlights for me at the mission was the first morning when all the visitors would be given a tour of the grounds.  I always called it the miracle tour because at every location, the guide would tell us how God miraculously provided something or someone that was desperately needed in order to make that aspect of the ministry to function at its peak level.

The tour always began with the miraculous story of how Chuck and Charla arrived at the place in the dead of night, out of gas, not knowing where they were, where they would sleep or how they would get home.  Nevertheless they trusted God completely and he provided miraculously.  The high point in the story was how Charla arose early the next morning, went for a little walk, and heard children laughing.  She looked for the children, but never found them.  She did find God speaking to her heart, telling her that one day this desolate, run down place, would be the home of countless laughing children, and that she would have a big part to play in making that happen.

I never ceased to smile and be encouraged at hearing that story and then reading about it Charla’s book Charla’s Children, and watching a show about it on the 700 Club.  Finally the day came when I met her.  I was at the mission with my friend Bruce, who was a relatively new Christian and was making one of his first mission trips (he, like so many others, would never be the same after visiting the children’s home in the Baja.  He is now a leader in his church and has gone all over the world evangelizing and leading pastors conferences).  We were eating lunch in the cafeteria and Charla and a friend sat across from us. She was friendly and we all had a nice conversation.  Bruce used to be a mail carrier in San Clemente, the headquarters of FFHM, so they had something in common to talk about.  I’ll never forget that day.  Over the years I have had the great privilege to get to know Charla, and listen to her speak on many occasions.  She is a gifted speaker and I always end up laughing one minute at some humerous story, and then tears are running uncontrollably down my face the next as she recounts how some wrecked and hopeless child was saved, changed and loved because of how God used Charla and FFHM.

FFHM sends out a newsletter every month, and in the early years of the new century, they began writing about a new vision and new ministry.  A conference/training center in Oaxaca, Mexico for graduates of the Bible Institute that they had in the Baja.  Most of the migrant workers in the camps surrounding the mission were from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.  Many came to know Christ through the outreach programs.  Some felt a call to ministry and studied at the Institute, and then went back to their hometowns and villages in Oaxaca to spread the Good News to their family and friends that God loved them and wanted them to be happy, and had provided a glorious way for them to enter into this happiness.  This proved to be difficult work and often very dangerous to the people from the Baja Mission who returned to their homeland to people who were hostile to new approaches to relating to God.

FFHM wanted to offer a place for these new ministers of the Gospel to go where they could be encouraged, refreshed and equipped in their work.  So it came about that miraculously (of course) that FFHM purchased a piece of property that had a little building on it, from another ministry.  This  would become the Oaxaca base for graduates of the Bible Institute and further outreach to the many unreached people groups of Oaxaca.

Charla came down to check out the property and sign on the dotted line.  Oaxaca had a special place in her heart because many years before, her and Chuck had adopted a baby boy that was born to a young lady in difficult circumstances in this southern state of Mexico.  As Charla traveled around Oaxaca she encountered another home for needy children that was in dire straits.  They asked her and FFHM to take over the home.  In a couple of talks that I heard Charla give, she recounted this story and told the people in charge, “No thanks.  Been there, done that.”

Later on she heard the still, small voice of God speaking to her heart, telling her to care for these poor children.  Always careful to follow the prompting of her gracious Lord and Savior, she returned the following day and told the leader of the children’s home that FFHM would take over the ministry and care for the “least of these”, God’s precious, neglected children.

So began a new phase of FFHM, another children’s home in one of the poorest states of Mexico.  Many people from the U.S. and Canada responded to the new outreach with large donations and even larger hearts, to go where the need was greatest.  After a few years a brand new facility was built on the newly purchased property.  The call went out for Believers to come and help with this new endeavor and make a difference in the Kingdom of God.

I was at a point in my life where I was free to heed the call and go to Oaxaca, finally fulfilling my dream of being a permanent part of FFHM and their incredible ministry.  I arrived at the Oaxaca mission on March first, 2005.  It was still a construction site without kids.  I went to work helping put tile on floors, electrical wires in the ceilings and paint on the walls.  In my free time I began planting gardens, as that was one of my jobs in Santa Rosa, California.

In August of that year, the children made the move from the squalid confines of their old place across the city, to the brand new digs of Casa Hogar, set in the beautiful countryside of the Tlacolula valley.  The work continued.  It seemed more meaningful now with happy kids running all over the place.  We could see the fruits of our labors in the smiling faces of all the boys and girls.  We painted the last walls, put the finishing touches on the modern kitchen and I continued to plant gardens, including the grassy courtyard where the children would eventually play tag, catch and have picnics.

My jobs eventually entailed teaching English and other classes, doing prison ministry, driving kids to and from school and occasionally going on service and evangelistic outreaches, as well as preaching and  maintaining the gardens and planting an orchard full of a variety of fruit trees.

I met my future wife, Anita, a beautiful and extremely talented cook, at the mission.  We have two fabulous little girls, Sally and Kelly.  I will have spent eleven years cooperating with God and FFHM come March.  The best eleven years of my life.  I daily pray for Charla, FFHM leaders, the staff and children at Casa Hogar, and thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for allowing me to be a small part of such a great ministry.  I remember Charla saying one time that God doesn’t want our ability so much as our availability.  I have thought about that a lot.  My ability isn’t so great, but I thank God that he took my availability and is able to use it in some small way to make a difference in the lives of “the least of these” in Oaxaca, Mexico.
*****        *****         *****          *****

helping the poor

 

The last two Saturdays of my life could not have been more different.  Two Saturdays ago my familyQuinceanera attended a quinceañera, a grand celebration in Latin America of the 15th birthday of a young lady.  Last Saturday our family went to a.funeral of my wife’s grandfather, a sad affair because he wasted most of his life on alcohol, and nobody is sure where his eternal soul abides.

We were invited to the  quinceañera by a dedicated Christian woman who spent some years helping out at the home for needy children where my wife and I serve.  Now her lovely Christian daughter was celebrating her 15th birthday in a big way, with a beautiful new dress, six handsome young men decked out with tuxedos, super decorations, delicious food and great music.  What could be better?  A good time was had by all.

On Friday, my wife Anitas grandfather died in a freak accident, perhaps caused by drinking, even though it was only 11a.m.  He was sitting on a rock ledge.  He leaned back and tumbled onto a concrete floor where he cracked open his skull.  He was 83 years old.

The next day the funeral and burial took place.  His estranged wife of many years was there.  His two daughters and three grandchildren were there.  He lived with and was cared for and loved by his family in Mitla, Mexico.  He had lived in Mexico city with some family until they found it extremely difficult to deal with him due to his drinking problem.  They basically just dropped him off in Mitla for his daughter and her family to try and manage.  They seemed to be saying “He is your problem now.”

Anita’s younger brother is in his twenties.  He has Down Syndrome.  He was the only person who cried at the burial.  He cried with all his heart.  When he prays and sings he does it with all his heart.  He seems to be in touch with God on a higher plane than most of us.  Some people feel sorry for the poor kid with Down Syndrome.  Sometimes I think that we should feel sorry for ourselves that we are not in touch with God like he seems to be.   I think he was mourning for more than his dead, alcoholic grandpa cold in the grave.  Maybe he was mourning for a weak, troubled spirit who couldn’t overcome his problem; a man, created in God’s image who never experienced the joy and peace that comes from living in right relationship with God.  That is most tragic thing in the world, and maybe everyone present at the grave site should have been crying with all their heart.

Anita’s older brother is pastor of a little church in Mitla, and is also owner/operator of a Christian radio station.  At the funeral he talked about how his grandfather had made some poor choices in life, and then talked about how we have all made some poor choices in our lives.  How we have all fallen short of God’s glory, how we have all sinned.  The   cure for poor life decisions is found at the foot of the cross, in the forgiveness found in trusting our lives to Jesus of Nazareth.  “Confess your sins to God, and he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  These were the words he used to end the service.  A great encouragement to those of us who could look at everyday of our lives and realize that we have fallen short of God’s holy expectations of us.  A great appeal to those who have never trusted in the precious blood of Christ to change bad life decisions into a new Life.

A grave side burial in Oaxaca Mexico is unlike any I ever experienced in the U.S.  The word that comes to mind is Raw.  It is not “pretty”.  It’s not ugly either.  It’s just real, maybe like it was in the U.S. 100 years ago.  There is a big hole in the ground with a big pile of dirt beside it.  Family members and friends of the deceased put a couple of ropes under the casket, and lift it up and lower it into the hole.  Sally and Kelly were very interested in the whole affair and care had to be taken that they didn’t fall in.  Once the casket is in, a bag of clothes belonging to the dead person comes out, and one by one the clothes are dropped in.  In this case, Anita s younger brother did the honor, dropping in some pants, a couple of shirts and a couple of sweaters, his tears falling in along with the clothes.  After the clothes, some flowers are added and then the dirt begins to fly.  Again, family members and friends are the ones shoveling the dirt, filling the grave.

When the shoveling is done, there is a mound of dirt at least two feet high over the casket.  On this mound of dirt was placed flowers in five gallon buckets, along with candles and a cup of soda pop. Finally everyone goes home.  My Saturday experience was finished.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 Says  it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.

Death is the destiny of everyone.  Physical death, that is.  Praise God that He has made a way for people to live eternally, and that eternal life begins the second a person has faith in Jesus and in his work on the cross.  Thank God we can look forward to that day we will be seated at the heavenly banquet, the celestial quinceañera, but instead of honoring a 15 year old lady, we will be adoring our Lord and Savior.

 

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death

I haven’t written for awhile because Anita, the girls and I went to the United States for a month.  We hadDSC05862 not been there for four years, so we had a great time visiting family, going to a Giants game in San Francisco, Disneyland in L.A. and camping in the Rocky Mountains.  I loved driving on pot hole free roads and using free bathrooms that had toilet paper, toilet seats, hot water and paper towels.  I encountered no crazy taxi drivers, never heard a honking horn and saw no graffiti and little litter. These are things most Americans take for granted.   In Mexico these things are the exception.

But I am glad to be back at the Mission in Oaxaca.  Why?  Because, while we don’t have the best roads, nicest bathrooms or  cleanest cities, we do have, in my humble opinion, the finest people serving at the greatest Mission in the world.  The people serving at the Home for Needy Children in Oaxaca could work almost anywhere and make more money, if money was their priority, but it’s not.  Their priority is loving God with all their being, and loving their neighbors as they love themselves.  Their priority is helping the poorest of the poor in Mexico.  Their priority is bringing help, hope and love to the downcast, oppressed, abused and mistreated children of this poor land.

Now I am back with these fine people and enjoying seeing formerly sad children smile, discouraged little girls encouraged, angry little boys at peace, hungry teens well fed and losers at life’s sometimes vicious game, given another chance at happiness and contentment.

Of course, all of this is made possible by the grace of God, the prayers of the saints and the contributions of people who care.  Thank you God for people who care!

*****          *****          *****          *****

poor one

March first was my ten year anniversary of being at the Home For Needy Children in Oaxaca, Mexico.   Looking back on those ten years I think about Beauty, Goodness and Truth.  I have been rereading a Christian philosophy book about Beauty, Goodness and Truth, with regards to the writings of C.S. Lewis.  Beauty, Goodness and Truth are three important characteristics that describe God and his work with humanity.  We are created in God’s image, thus three important aspects of of humans, especially Christian humans should be Beauty, Goodness and Truth.beauty, truth, goodness

In God we see he created beauty in the six days of creation.  Not only was it beautiful, but God pronounced it good.  We also see the goodness of God in the way he provides for our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs.  As Pastor Aaron is fond of saying, “God is good all the time” and “All the time God is good.”  When it comes to truth, well, God is truth, and all truth is God’s truth.  Jesus said, “I am the truth.”

As Christians we strive to be like our maker (who after creating man and woman proclaimed this special act of creation as Very Good).  Everyday, followers of Christ should desire to make beauty, or make the world and the kingdom of God, more beautiful.  A true disciple should also do good and acquire and disseminate truth.  As I look back on my ten years in Mexico I ask myself if I have done these three things.

God loves us and wants us to be happy.  He has created us to be most happy when we do these three things.  I have been extremely happy these past ten years cooperating with God in making beauty, doing good and acquiring and disseminating truth.  I am most happy when I am making gardens, following in the footsteps of God who made the first garden.  Genesis tells us the first garden was first of all beautiful, and then good for producing fruit.  I try to make gardens that are also beautiful and good for producing peace and happiness, as well as good food.  I appreciate it when visitors to the Oaxaca mission tell how beautiful and peaceful it is.  My primary hope is that the gardens bring a sense of peace and joy to the hurting children that we care for.  We have one troubled boy who, despite his inner struggles and conflicts, consistently tells me, when I am putting in a new garden, that it is beautiful.  Thank you Danny.

All the staff members at the mission do good things and practice kindness everyday.  We take kids to school and pick them up.  We do dishes and sweep and mop floors.  We go to Oaxaca city after our “workday” is done on Tuesday evenings and spend a few more hours at the fruit and vegetable market asking vendors for donations of produce, arrive back late and unload the pickup.  Usually some kids from the mission go along and help.  It all makes for a long day, but I think that as we finally climb into bed, we give thanks to God that he has allowed us to participate with him in the kingdom work of helping “the least of these”.  For members of the Family of God, doing good is is important, especially considering Jesus words in Matthew chapter 25 – when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, take in strangers, help the sick and visit those in prison, we do it as though it were for Jesus.  “When you did it to these my brothers, you have done it for me.”  These ten years in Mexico I have done a few good things, by the grace of God who has allowed me to partner with brothers and sisters who share a faith to “love one another as I have loved you”.

One of my favorite things to do throughout my life has been to acquire and disseminate truth.  I have always loved to read and learn and to share with others what I have learned.  At the Home for Needy Children there is a primary school which offers the students a variety of electives.  I have been privileged to share truth with the children on gardening, baseball and currently basketball.

There is a prison across the street and for over five years I have walked across the highway to that prison and have taught an English class to groups of women, men, and inmates in the psyche ward. Disseminating truth not only about nouns, verbs and vowels, but also about God’s love, compassion and mercy.  Psalms says that God gives us the desires of our heart.  God gave me the desire to learn and teach, to acquire and disseminate truth, and I am blessed that I have been able to do that in a variety of ways at the Mission in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Speaking of Beauty, Goodness and Truth that I have experienced during my time in Mexico, I am most grateful for my beautiful wife Anita, and two wonderful daughters, Sally and Kelly, that God has given me during my time here.  They are so good and bring much happiness to my life. Surely God is good all the time.

I also thank God for the chance to get to know Charla Pereau , the founder of Foundation for His Ministry which operates the Home for Needy Children here in Oaxaca.  She is the epitome of making beauty, doing good and sharing truth.  Thousands of the “least of these” in Mexico enjoy happier lives because of her life.  I am one of those.

*****          *****          *****          *****

How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good He has given me?  I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD.   Psalm 116:12,13

 

There are three things that will never die: truth, goodness and beauty.  These are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need, and know we need absolutely.  Our minds want not only some truth and some falsehood, but all truth, without limit.  Our wills want not only some good and some evil, but all good, without limit.  Our desires, imaginations, feeling or hearts want not just some beauty and some ugliness, but all beauty, without limit.  These three things are three attributes of God, and therefore of all of God’s creation:  three transcendental or absolutely universal properties of all reality.   C.S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty  by David J. Baggett

 

In my last bog post I wrote about going to the prison across the street and teaching English.  As I was writing a bunch of thoughts came to me, things I thought about writing but that didn’t seem appropriate to that entry.  So here I am to write about life I’m general in that particular prison that I go to every Tuesday afternoon.

First, a little about the history of that prison.  It is a relatively new prison, built about ten years ago.  It was originally built as women’s prison.  When I arrived at FFHMs Home for needy children, in 2005, the new prison across the road had about 12 women incarcerated there.  In 2006-2007, violence and rebellion broke out in the city of Oaxaca,Mexico,  First the teachers union took over the city because their demands weren’t met by the governor of the state, whom they hated. They were soon joined by various communist and radical socialist groups, which plunged the city into turmoil for over a year.  Finally the president of Mexico sent in the troops to rescue the capital city of Oaxaca, and made hundreds of arrests.  The question was, where do we put all these new arrestees?  The answer was at the New, near empty prison just outside of Tlacolula.  The new inmates were landed inside the prison in military helicopters, and the population jumped from 12 to over 200.
Soon after that our mission pastor began making regular trips to the prison, preaching the good news that even though their bodies were behind bars, their spirits could be free.  A few months after that, I began teaching English there.
I mentioned earlier that I am going to write about General life in that prison.  First I am going to write about my general life or experience there and then about what I see or have learned about the inmates General experience living there.
It takes me about 15 minutes to walk from the children’s home to the prison.  Outside the prison is a state police outpost.  The officer on duty wants to see my identification and asks me who I am going to visit.  I tell him I am an English teacher and that I am going to my class.  After all these years most of the police know me and just wave me on.  I proceed to the main gate, arriving about 3 pm.  The prison guards are supposed to start letting the public in at 3pm, but they normally don’t visitors in until 5, 10, or even 15 minutes past the hour.  There are usually a half dozen or so family members waiting to be admitted.  Almost all of the visiting families have a bag or two of food to bring in as well as a big bottle of Coca Cola, Mexico’s unofficial national drink.   At some point the guard will open the huge metal door, and let people in, three at a time.  Finally I am allowed in.  I give my special teacher identification to the guard, and then another guard, almost always a female, goes through my bag to make sure that I am not trying to smuggle in contraband, like weapons, drugs, or photos.  Once my bag is cleared, I need to be cleared.  First they make sure I am wearing the correct clothes.  Black, navy blue and camouflage clothes are not allowed, nor are hats, shorts or erotic clothing. If I am alright in the clothing department, a male guard escorts me into a tiny room and closes the door.  He pats me down, checking for knives, guns or the always dangerous cell phone.  If he decides I’m not a risk to myself or others, he opens another door and I retrieve my bag and make my way to checkpoint number two; Control.
It’s called Control because the two or three guards there control who goes from one side of the prison to the other.  One side consists of prisoners who are still on “trial” (see my last blog).  The other side consists of convicts.  My classroom is on the convict side.  I greet the guards, who always seem to be good natured and are friendly.  Some call me James Bond.  One guard likes to be called after the actor Van Dam.  I ask permission to pass, and ask them to unlock my classroom.  I always stop by to say “hi” to my ex-student Tony.  We both used to live in Santa Cruz, California.
When I get to my classroom, it is almost always locked, so my two or three students and I begin class sitting on a bench outside.  Eventually a guard will show up and we go inside.
The classroom has a huge white board and about 30 desks.  My first class is basic English, and my second class is do advanced students.  We finish about 5:30 and I make my way out of the prison and back to the mission.  Thus, my life at the prison.
The average inmates life at this prison is like nothing you have seen in movies regarding American inmates in American prisons.  In the movies, and in prisons in the U.S., like Alcatraz, there are bars all over the place.  In this Mexican prison, I have never seen any bars, although I have never been to see their cells, which probably have bars.  I have been in a couple Mexican prisons, and they are like little villages.  They elect a president.  They have little kiosks where they make things to sell, like belts, little boats, pictures, wallets, sandals, baskets, and lots and lots of soccer balls (receiving about 80 cents for each ball they sew together).  Some inmates tend gardens, make tacos, sell fruit and vegetables, or cut hair.  Generally there are families eating together and children playing on swings or teeter-totters.  There is a basketball court that also serves as a soccer play area, and there is almost always a spirit game of basketball or soccer going on.  Usually I forget that I  am in a prison,  because the atmosphere is more like the downtown plaza than a prison.  Most of the prisoners have a spouse or children on the outside, so they work at some kind of trade or job and sell their products to fellow prisoners, visitors, or their family members take the products out of the prison to sell.  There is a big wood shop where some inmates make furniture or frames for video games.

They also receive different types of education.  A prisoner who was soon to be released was joking with me that he didn’t want to be released.  Here at prison he was receiving free cooking classes, English classes, a computer course and Tae Kwon Do training.

A few times a year they have special celebrations, parties or fiestas.  When I was there last Tuesday, they were dismantling a circus like tent where they had had a special Mothers Day celebration.  During the Christmas and Easter season, different churches come in and provide meals, music and ministry to the prisoners.  In Mexico they have a Day of the Prisoner, and those confined within the concrete walls receive extra good  food and drink, along with bands playing their favorite tunes.

So there it is, life in a Mexican prison; my life for a few short hours a week, and what the inmates experience for months or years on end.  All things considered, it could be a lot worse.  Thank God for those who visit the imprisoned and help make their stay a lot better – life changing for those who  choose to follow Christ.

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Next blog – Looking Forward to Going Home

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Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you, yourselves were suffering.  Hebrews 13:3

I was released from prison last Tuesday at 5:43 pm.  A prison guard walked me to the main gate, put his key in the lock,opened the huge metal door and let me out.  I was a free man.  It felt great to be free, to be liberated from the iron bars and concrete walls.  But I was also thinking of the friends that I had left behind.  Bernardo, Aries, Guillermo, Armando, and Marzalino to name a few. I was sad that they were still doing time.  Oh well, I thought, I will be able to encourage them next Tuesday.
Your see, I teach an English class at a prison that is across the highway from Cristo Por Su Mundo, (Christ for the world), home for needy children, where I live with my family, and participate with God in helping “the least of these” as Jesus referred to the oppressed and downtrodden of the world.  These include the children and prisoners that most of humanity forgets about and leaves behind.  Every Tuesday afternoon I walk across the highway and enter a whole new world.  I get to leave after a few hours.  My students, my friends, have to stay.

One day I was walking alone in the hills that surround this mission.  This was about five years ago.  I was talking to God about my life.  I was thanking Him that he allowed me to cooperate with Him at the home for needy children.  I was thinking how fortunate I am to be participating in the Divine Nature that Peter talks about in 2 Peter 1 (see my last blog).  Part of participating with God is to make beauty; to  make the world a more beautiful place everyday, and I am able to do that by planting and maintaining the gardens here at the mission.  But I was thinking, what else could I do?   God, what else do you want me to do?  What else can we cooperate on in helping this hurting world?   Then the verse from Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you did not visit me.”  The words of Jesus on the last day, judgement day, convicting me.

The mission already had a couple of preachers and teachers who would go to  the various prisons in the area to minister in word and song, and I felt like I could and should do something different, to reach out to other prisoners and help them in a way that they could get a sense of  the love of God, without a Bible preacher or teacher.  The idea came to me that I could teach an English class.  Before I came to Mexico, I had never taught English, but I realized that the most important thing about being a teacher of anything, is to simply know more than your students.  So I decided I was qualified and at the request of some people here at the home for needy children, I began teaching English.  That was going well, so now I would be going across the highway to the prison to see if anyone there wanted to learn English.  There was- and I was there to stay, at least for about three hours every Tuesday afternoon.

All my students are great.  I can’t believe any of them have done anything to deserve prison.  I have never asked any of them why they are, or were, there.  I don’t think  it is any of my business.  When I see them, I don’t want to see them as murderers, thieves, rapists, drug dealers or extortionists.  I want to see them as people who were created in the image of God, people who have made mistakes in life, as I have.  People who want to learn English, but more important people who want a friend, people who want to hear the Good News of God’s love, even if it is in the context of an English class.  The students come  and go, both to class and to and from prison.  Two of my students were released, and within months were back in prison, back in my class.  Most have been released and are leading productive lives.

I don’t understand a lot about the Mexican judicial system, but it seems that you are guilty until proven innocent, and you don’t get a trial before a judge.  What happens is you are accused, sent to prison, and then your lawyer writes to the judge, explaining your side of the situation, then the other lawyer answers with a letter, and it goes back and forth like that until the man is declared not guilty and gets out of prison, or is found guilty and continues to live behind bars.  This process can go on for years. There are two sections to this prison; one for people who have been conviction, the other for dozens of men and women who are “on trial” in their cells.   One of my favorite students, a very intelligent man, who speaks remarkably good English, has been in prison for the whole time I have been teaching, waiting for his case to be resolved.

I have had some students who have been in prison in the U.S. and in Mexico.  I ask them what is the major difference.  They tell me that if you are in prison in the U.S., you are probably guilty.  If you are in prison in Mexico, there is a good chance that you are innocent.

The situation for many in prison in Mexico is tragic.  Many prisoners feel helpless, and that their situations are hopeless.  I thank God that He  reaches out to those men and women behind bars and concrete walls, and reaches into their hearts with hope, mercy, love and grace.  While many suffer injustice from the system, they receive joy and peace from God.  While the government says “You are to live incarcerated in prison”  God says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

I thank God that I am free, on the outside and the inside.  I also thank God for setting the captives free; free in spirit; free in heart; free in soul.  Those whom the Son sets free, are free indeed.

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Stone walls do  not a  prison  make, Nor iron bars a cage ;

Minds innocent and quiet take that for an heritage;

If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above, enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace (1618-1658), from To Althea, from Prison

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Next blog – Life in One Mexican Prison

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