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.
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.
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I’m stepping off the plane in Johannesburg, South Africa, half way around the world. I’m looking for a small, young Indian man named Raj. We’ve never met, nor even talked, but he is my connection and I have no plan B. He knows what I look like, but that’s about it. Luckily, Raj finds the tall lanky American and we set off on our adventure. I am finally in the land of Mandela again. I have been intrigued and fascinated with this great man ever since I read “Long Walk to Freedom” years ago. I have always wanted to come back to this historic place and finally it has arrived; the last time I was here was in 1995 after Mandela had been elected president. I have come all this way to try to get a place at the Gandhi Global Peace Summit that will begin in two days in Durban. All I know is that I received a mass email about this conference that is held once every six years. It is hosted by Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, and noted civil rights leader Dr. Bernard Lafayette. Freedom fighters and peace icons from around the world meet and discuss solutions for world peace. The 14th fourteenth Dalai Lama is represented, as well as dignitaries from India, Uganda, Egypt, and other war-torn countries from around the world. I just want to be present and sit at the feet of these great people and learn what I have been sent there to learn. I just hope that they will let me in, and that I can get a seat and see the stage from where I am. But I have no idea what is in store for me.
When I learned that I would be making this historic trip, I proclaimed to the church that I would not only be visiting Robben Island where Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen of his twenty- seven years, but that I would also be speaking in a South African prison. The only problem? I had no connections, invitations, nor did I even know of any specific South African prisons. I just reasoned that I would figure it out when I got there; I do a lot of things like that, and have found that it is a fascinating way to live: call your shot, and then go and search for an open door. My driver and interpreter was a wonderful young Zulu man named Mulu. Halfway into my trip and after the conference had already begun, Mulu called and said that he had a couple of friends who wanted to meet me. I told him that I would be honored and that we could have dinner together that evening. He said that they couldn’t meet until late and that there was one more thing that I should know about them: they were former gangsters and had done time inside a place called Westville Prison. That sounded like it would be right up my alley, so I quickly agreed.
We went to a mall in the middle of nowhere at about ten that night10pm. It was an adventure to get there as we drove through red lights so that we didn’t have to stop, as Mulu informed me that we would risk being car-jacked if we slowed down. We met up with his friends, and we immediately hit it off. They told me about growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and what it was like to do hard time there. They spoke of the Westville prison that was built to hold 7,000seven thousand men, but currently houses 12,000twelve thousand. They shared about their change and their conversion behind the walls. I was fascinated. The mall was closing and we had to leave, but as we hugged and made our way to the door, I asked them an important question:. “Any way you guys could get me into that prison?” They looked at me a little strange and said that they knew the chaplain. I asked them to see if they could get me in, but then I threw in one more request: “It has to be tomorrow morning.” The problem was that it was already 11:00pm at night, and if I was going to get in, it needed to early the next morning, so that I could make it back for the second half of the conference.
The next morning Mulu called me early. He said that his friends had phoned him and said that they didn’t know if they could get me in but it was worth a try, and to get me there by 8:00ameight. As we drove into the main complex I was overwhelmed at the size of this prison. As we approached the gate I prayed that God would open the door. Thirty minutes later we were inside and getting cleared through security. They took me up a long spiral walkway and put me in a large room with no windows. This part of the prison is old, dark, and dank. We waited for what seemed like a long time and then finally men dressed in orange jump suits began to file in. These were Zulu convicts and many of them had blank stares and deep scars. Many were political prisoners, and others were hardened criminals, while others were just desperately poor people in a bad place. I was told that because of overcrowding, they had a system where they had to share cots with other inmates and when their sleeping time was up other inmates would just kick the bed to let the other man know it was their turn.
Within forty-five minutes, we were dancing, and singing, laughing, and cheering. Here I was halfway around the world and I was experiencing the same reactions and responses as I did from prisoners in America. The only difference was language and culture, but the hearts were the same. Their living conditions were much more desperate, and their spirits longed even more to be free. Once again I was reminded powerfully that we are all humans and we are all in this thing together. I could see the longing for liberation in their eyes and I could sense it in their spirits. I was amazed how God had led me to the exact men that could get me into the exact prison that I had proclaimed that I would enter just weeks before. Fascinating… As we finished and walked back through the gate, I marveled at what had just happened. I looked at the clock and told Mulu that we needed to get back across town as fast as possible, and that maybe I could still make it to the conference by lunchtime.
As we got back to the university and I ran back to the building where the Peace Summit was being held, I busted through the doors right as lunch was almost over. I hurried to the buffet line and got a plate of the Indian Cuisine and made my way to an empty table to wolf down my food. On my way in through the doors, I ran into a new friend who is the founder of War Resisters International out of NYCNew York City. A fascinating and brilliant man with a bald head, thick glasses, and a long white beard. He asked me, “Did you get into the prison, and did you get to speak?” I said with a smile that yes indeed, I had! Then he made his way back into the crowd. As I sat there eating alone, I was interrupted by a nice, polite Indian woman. She was there representing the Premier, and she was involved in the development and implementation of the agenda for this important conference. This meeting is held only once every six years and the speakers are carefully chosen and invited far in advance of this event.
She said’, “Excuse me, Mr. Cummings, I have a question for you. We have heard that you visited a prison here in Durban this morning, and that you spoke to the prisoners about non-violence. We would like to know if you would be willing to speak.”
I was stunned. Trying to swallow my food in order to be respectful, I replied, “Of course, I would be honored. When would you like for me to speak?” She quickly said, “Right now” and led me by the arm away from my table and up to the podium. They began to introduce me immediately and said that I had some things of importance that they would like for me to share. Before I even had time to prepare my remarks, I was holding the microphone. There I was in a tee-shirt and blue jeans, with Ela Gandhi and Dr. Bernard Lafayette in the front row. But I was honored and privileged to have the very important opportunity to present to peacemakers from around the world about the Power of Peace Movement, and how we were teaching Gandhi, King and Mandela nonviolent principles in prisons and inner city schools back in the states. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and amazed at what had just happened. It was beyond my wildest dreams, but exactly why I had come all the way across the world. I just didn’t know it.