Can Heaven be Found in Hell? Inside the most notorious prison in South Africa

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I cannot keep up with God, I just cannot. Nor can I keep up with this blog.  I have not space to write about being stuck in Istanbul for 48 hours because we were missing a document we didn't know we needed. I have not time to speak of the writers' workshop here in Cape Town, where we all, yes, saw miracles happen among us. Or the days at George Whitefield College where hearts were knit together, or the visit to a township of a million souls, and. much more. Let me write just about today. 

But first, may I complain a bit? It must be 95 degrees here in Cape Town today, like most of the days we've been here. Sweat is rivering down my back. And there is an ongoing devastating drought which makes everything hotter. We are more than complying with the water restrictions, we Alaska bush people, who can nurse a cup of water into an entire head-to-toe bath, with enough left over to boil for a tea party for twelve. But in this dry heat this far-north woman is half-melted and dehydrated and limp with fatigue.  But I am resting this evening. Resting from a trip to someplace unimaginable. Somewhere I did not expect to go. 


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 I went to Pollsmoor Prison. It's a facility in Cape Town, South Africa  built for 1500 during the days of Apartheid. Built, as some have written, "to break the spirit of the black man." Nelson Mandela was held here. Now, it houses more than 4,000. It is 300% over capacity. Gangs rule. HIV, Tuberculosis and other diseases are rampant. Even the prison guards call it "inhumane."   In 2016, CNN snagged an exclusive look behind the walls of Pollsmoor. The headline and the video here:

Exclusive: Inside the Hellish Prison Where Nelson Mandela Was Held


This was my outing today. 

I shouldn't have gone. There's no way I should have gotten in. One of the directors of Hope Prison Ministries asked me to come last week. The chances of me getting clearance into a maximum security prison on such short notice were slim. So many hoops and circuits and stamps to run. But somehow----there it was. Yes. I can go.

And what shall I do there, this woman from Alaska? Hope Prison Ministries has an incredible ministry among the inmates that focuses on restorative justice. People who could have brilliant huge salary professions are here instead, giving their lives to these men and women many consider hopeless, unworthy. What can I add to their amazing program? I went to talk about forgiveness. 

I did not know anything before it started. To whom I would be speaking, to how many, or where we would be gathering. In a cell? In a hall? in the cafeteria? In a closet? Then the news: I would be speaking to young women outside in the courtyard.

I joined the Hope team as we walked through hallways grimy with peeling paint and cracking ceilings. Stood in line to be frisked one by one behind a curtain, then passing through one iron gate after another, ending up outside in a long narrow concrete courtyard, where laundry hung on a line and tumbleweeds of black spiraling hair swept across our feet. Then they came, these women, dressed in neon yellow prison uniforms.  They were not there by choice. 

We sat in a giant circle. Some glowered at me as I sat among them. Of course. Who is the white woman coming to speak to us? She can talk and then leave back to her privileged white life." I would feel the same.  How do I start? "Thank you for coming! How is your day going so far?" No. I don't remember how I started, it's something of a blur, but this is what I can tell you about those 90 minutes:

I told them of God's love for them. That his forgiveness was available to all of them. That when we are forgiven by God we stand perfect, holy, clean, pure before Him. I told them my stories of forgiveness. How hard it can be, but how God makes it possible. How we can break generational cycles. And----they listened. And----I told them to write something. I made them do an exercise, an empathy exercise, and they did it. I couldn't believe it. And they had questions. Near the end, we stood in a circle, the sun beating down and I am wondering how I get to be here holding the hand of a young South African woman whose life is already in tatters. And I get to call upon the Lord of the Sky and the Heavens on behalf of those women who have hijacked cars, committed armed robbery, broken into houses, sold drugs, sold themselves for drugs. Women who were given little chance in life and who may go straight back to it. Or not. But women beloved by God.

Some of them know Jesus. One woman told me she found Jesus there in Pollsmoor last month. She had a Bible now. We sat knee to knee and talked, talked deep and stood and prayed in a long hug. I am thinking of her now and praying for her. She has so much against her. But she has Jesus. 

One woman just lost her remaining parent. She was alone in the world now. I prayed with her that God would bring her mothers and fathers, that she would be embraced by the family of God that is everywhere.

At the last we broke into small circles.  The others in the team led sharing and prayer. Hands were held tight, heads were low. And I knew: We were not alone in that courtyard, that ugly harsh courtyard inside one of the worst prisons in the world. God was with us. We knew it. We saw it. We saw Him there.

The Hope Team, who is there nearly every day said, 'This day was special. Was very special. God was at work."

SO many of you were praying. Your prayers were heard. Your prayers help me go inside that prison. Your prayers helped me plead and coax and love my heart out to each one of them. And God was pleased to use all those offerings. 

(And there will be follow-up with these women next week. this is not hit-and-run ministry. I too must continue to pray for them.)

I send this out to you, these raw words that I do not have time to make beautiful. I send them because I want you to know not about me, but about Hope Prison Ministries and the 100 people who spend their time volunteering in a place that everyone else runs from. They inspire me.

But you inspire me as well. You bless me so much by your prayers. I could not have done it without them. And I want to encourage all of you---do not be afraid to go into new places with the gospel. Do not be afraid of photos and news stories and words like "hellish," even when they're true.  Because Jesus reigns. And He has work for you to do in hard places that won't feel hard when you're there. Because you will only see people who need him, beautiful broken people who need love and Jesus. And you've got both. That's all that is needed to enter even hell, holding out a piece of heaven. 

This week, be brave. Dare to love. Bring someone a piece of heaven.  

Love to you all,


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