This a powerful story that is hard to communicate in just a few words how amazing it really is, but I will try. Just three weeks ago fifty men in a tough Mexican prison began the Power of Peace Project’s “40 Days of Peace” Program. Many of these men are affiliated with gangs and cartels and many are rivals. In this prison, the men are packed twenty to a cell because it was built for 2500 but currently houses 5600 inmates. All these men went through the two day launch with us, signed the peace pledge, received the wristband and a journal, and committed to forty days of nonviolence– with daily journaling and action challenges, weekly small groups with their rivals, and a paper writing assignment that will precede a graduation celebration at the end of the project. In three short weeks this was an issue that came up this past week in the weekly meeting: out of the fifty men, only one man (named Julio) is not in a cell with any of the other POPP initiates. The cell he is packed into has no other POPP brothers and he is the only one with the wristband and journal—and he stands out. One of the brothers stood up and said: “Our brother Julio is all alone in his cell! What can we do to protect him?” My partner Jeff asked why he was in a cell all alone. They responded: “He’s not all alone, he just doesn’t have any Power of Peace brothers with him.” I am in awe. In three short weeks, these men are concerned that their brother is “all alone” because he is not surrounded by the POPP group. They have already owned it and are protecting it. Imagine what could happen over months and years… The Power of Peace.
Tonight at Hays State Prison the following story was told about Frank, one of our Power of Peace Leaders who was shipped out to another prison two weeks ago. One of our other POPP Brothers was there and witnessed it before he was sent back to Hays this week… The day that Frank arrived, he went to chow at the usual time. When he returned, he realized that somebody had stolen all his store goods out of his box– this is a very big deal, especially when you are new to a prison. There were about fifteen Hispanic inmates there who knew Frank from other prisons and who he is cool with. They decided they were ready to “go to war” to get his stuff back, as everyone knew who was behind the theft. Before anything could happen, Frank got all those men together and got his “40 Days of Peace” journal out and began to teach them the nonviolent principles he was practicing in the program, and how there were other alternatives to violence. The beef was settled nonviolently and now we have more men in yet another prison who are interested in the POPP Program…
The fascinating thing? Anyone can back down and “decide to be a peacemaker” when they’re afraid and outnumbered. But Frank had the muscle and the numbers to get his stuff back AND send a message, but he still chose peace. And he began leading the other inmates and modeling peace in the process. I’m so proud of him… The Power of Peace.
In this African tribe, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe comes and surrounds them. For two days, they will say to the man all the good things that he has done. The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes. The community sees those mistakes as a cry for help. They unite then to lift him, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth of which he had been temporarily disconnected: “I am good.” (What if we embraced this practice with our youth, instead of punitive justice first?)
I am getting “shook down” and inspected very thoroughly as I get through the gate in a Mexican maximum security prison. There are guards high above, up on the walls with AK-47s. This is where high risk inmates deep in the heart of Mexico are incarcerated. I am not sure what to expect as I prepare to speak to about three hundred convicts dressed in khaki uniforms. I am accompanied by my friend and mentor Johnny Moffitt , a former motorcycle gang member from Texas. Having been locked up in the seventies, he loves convicts and they love him. He has been doing this for almost forty years and has been in prisons all over the world. He and I met when we were booked to speak at the same prison ministry conference in Orlando and were mistakenly put in the same room, and literally had to sleep in beds that were four feet from one another. We have been friends ever since.
Speaking with an interpreter is an interesting experience. There is a rhythm that develops and it becomes like a dance. Unlike speaking to American audiences, you have time to think of your next sentence for longer than usual. The inmates look at you, then look at the translator and respond. There is a delay before they laugh or cheer and it is fun to wait for it. These men are intense and hanging on every word. In the crowd I know there are cartel members, drug dealers and murderers, but they are not what you would imagine. After the message, they line up to come and pay their respects and ask questions; more so than in U.S. prisons. They are so grateful, at least they were with us. I would not know how they act when we leave or before we come; I just know that around us there is a mutual respect and dignity, regardless of our differences.
Our host is a beautiful evangelical church in Puebla, about an hour from Mexico City. The pastor there is a former Miss Mexico and she and her husband lead a ministry that is exploding with a number of different locations in multiple cities with tens of thousands of converts. Because her churches are not mainstream and are growing so fast, she has been heavily persecuted by the more powerful religious denominations down there as well as those practicing the occult. There have been plots to kidnap her and kill her from time to time, and they live on a compound with high walls and armed guards to protect them. But still she boldly preaches and her churches continue to grow. Her driver is a former government body guard who now works for her to provide protection and security. We preached at her church several times while in Puebla and our team stayed on the compound. These were the most hospitable Christians I have ever met, and I have met them all around the world.
What made this trip a little different and definitely more difficult was the fact that I had broken my shoulder pretty badly just a few days before this trip. The doctor had told me that I shouldn’t travel and that I would need surgery to repair the broken shoulder joint. Well, there was no way that I was going to cancel this trip and that was all there was to it. So he set me up with a super-sling that not only kept my arm in the right slot but also wrapped around me and held my arm tight against my body. With a little pharmaceutical help, I was on my way to Mexico. I figured it would only help in some of the dangerous places we were going!
That Friday evening we had a large worship service in this mega-church. I had mentioned to Pastor Sheets, who was leading our team, that I wanted him to have our team pray that I wouldn’t need surgery when I got back to the states, because I didn’t have time for it. Pastor Sheets has been preaching all over the world for over fifty years and has done this type of service many, many times. He began by saying to the large audience “The Lord spoke to me this evening, and He told me that we needed to have a healing service. You see we have this young man on our team who recently broke his shoulder. The doctors have told him that it will require surgery, but he doesn’t agree with that. Tonight we are going to pray for him.” Now you must understand that I wasn’t raised in this type of church. These were Holy Ghost Christians and just didn’t fit into my box. I was quite uncomfortable that he had called me out. He went on: “I’d like to ask this young man to stand up, right there on the front row.” I was embarrassed, and my face turned blood red. I reluctantly stood up and they began to cheer for me. I wanted to sit back down, but then he started to sing in one of the most beautiful voices of prayer that I had ever heard.
I still didn’t believe in what he was doing, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of this beautiful gesture. Slowly, one by one, beautiful Latino worshippers began making their way to the front and they began to lay their hands on my shoulder. I was resisting gently, until I finally closed my eyes and endured it. Suddenly I heard what seemed to be a very clear voice, but no one was speaking to me. It said, “Are you really going to be so arrogant that you do not accept the gift that I am trying to give you?” I slowly lifted my good arm above my head and just let go. I focused on the song, the vibe, and the spirit of this wonderful, loving congregation and went with it. We finished that night with lots of hugs and a few tears, and then we continued with our prison tour. I can’t tell you that my shoulder was immediately healed, for that is not my story. But I can tell you that when I went back to the Emory University Specialist in Atlanta upon my return, he looked at the new x-rays and scans and told me that I did not need surgery any more. Today my right shoulder, the one that I had broken, is much stronger and more mobile than my left shoulder. I had learned a very valuable lesson: stop thinking you know when you don’t know, and stop trying to put Him into your own box. He doesn’t live in boxes, nor does He fit.
©2019 Kit Cummings | All Rights Reserved. | Website by Garber Consulting, Inc.
People keep telling me that this is not a good idea, that it would be dangerous. They told me the timing wasn’t good, and that my type would not be accepted there in that place, especially not now, with all that was going on. But I felt like now was the exact time to go; any other time would make no sense. This was the right time, and this was the right place; and these were the exact people that I needed to go and meet, and the exact people that I needed to learn from. How would I know if I do not go? The nation has been in an uproar over the killing of a young black man named Michael Brown by a white officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, just outside of East St. Louis. The country rioted over the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles almost twenty five years ago, and then our nation was divided once again by the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida just a few years ago. Now this latest tragedy, along with the Eric Garner case in New York closely following it, has exposed an ugly reality in our country that not much has changed, and that the racial divide is as deep as it’s ever been. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is choosing sides, and most are not afraid to broadcast that opinion, though many know very little about that which they are arguing. They only believe what they have watched, read or listened to in the media, but they have not gone and seen for themselves. I think if you haven’t walked a mile in the other’s shoes then it is better to listen and learn rather than preach. I have been guilty of that many times before.
So after I finished a series of events in a Kansas prison, I drove across the state line and headed for Ferguson. I didn’t have much of a plan but I felt a strong call pulling me. I’ve heard that voice many times before and simply followed it, and that has made all the difference. So I listened, and I drove. There had been recent protests and even riots in that community, where businesses were burned, looted and destroyed. It had gotten so bad at one point that the National Guard was called in and tear gas was used to disperse the angry crowds. I began to drive through St. Louis and on to Ferguson trying to find the exact spot where the killing had taken place just a few weeks earlier. The whole country was on edge over a grand jury decision as to whether they would charge the officer in the killing. I could sense the tension as I got deeper into the community. But I couldn’t find the street because I didn’t know where I was going. How would I know if I didn’t find someone to ask? So I saw a young man and a young woman sitting on a grass bank waiting on a bus. I pulled over and got out of my car. As I approached them they quickly noticed that I was not from around there. The young man happened to be black, and so was she. He had some fascinating artwork on his face and was wearing a Miami cap turned up and to the side. I asked a few short, but very important questions.
I asked, “Excuse me sir, can you help me?”
“Whatcha need?” he said.
“I need your advice,” I replied.
“About what?” he said.
I went on. “I would like to get your opinion about something. I’d like to know what you believe the solution to this big mess is. I need to know from someone who lives here.”
The whole vibe and energy of the situation quickly turned. Here I was, a white man that was obviously from out of town, walking around by myself asking questions to complete strangers in a neighborhood that was on the brink. He seemed to sense that I wasn’t a cop, or a reporter, but perhaps just a friend. I politely approached, I called him sir, I asked for his help, and then I wanted his opinion; treating him as an authority. They were wonderful and offered a very articulate and reasonable opinion. Then I asked how I could find the place that I was looking for.
“You mean the hot spot?” he said.
“Yeah, I guess that is what I’m looking for.”
He directed me, with a little grin, and then I gave him a street-hug. I said “I got nothing but love for you man.” And he said “I love you too, sir.” I got back in my car and headed to the hot spot.
As I drove down the street that had seen the rioting just days before, it looked like a war zone. Row after row of store fronts were boarded up, and the QuikTrip was burned to the ground, as well as other businesses all the way down that road. I stood in front of the stores and talked to people as they came out. I asked a young man where Michael Brown’s apartments were, and he pointed up the street, “Just head that way, you’ll see it.” I walked on and eventually came to the spot. There was a make shift memorial with flowers, teddy bears, balloons, candles and other loving gestures piled up in the street. There were also signs that had been propped up that read “Stop Killing Us” and other heart-broken messages. It was eerily quiet and deserted, and then slowly people began to come out and walk up to me. There I was, all alone wearing my “Hope is the New Dope” tee-shirt and walking around the site and saying hello to anyone that approached me. I offered the same questions that had already worked: “Excuse me, can you help me? I need some advice and your opinion. What do you believe that the solution is here?” It was like magic. Before I knew it there was a small crowd around me and I was interviewing people. By the end of my visit to that tragic landmark, we were hugging and posing for group photos, with peace signs in the air— at the exact spot where Michael had been killed. Whatever your position is on that controversy, it’s hard to argue with love. That picture (above) is a prized possession, and it reminds me that people are just people, and these were just heart broken, hurting families. They were beautiful and they treated me with nothing but love and respect. I wonder who would have predicted any of that by just watching the news… I wonder.
©2019 Kit Cummings | All Rights Reserved. | Website by Garber Consulting, Inc.