More Than a Number

My arm stamp to enter the Men’s prison

Twenty men to a cell sleeping night after night. Through the snoring and the quiet tears they wonder how they in fact got there, prison that is in Piura, Peru – Rio seco

Some have beds and others find something soft to place on the floor so that they sleep. All speak Spanish, but so oh different as they are from all over South America.

I tell them I’m number 87 today as that’s what the gold medallion that I must carry says. I go on tell them in here they too might only be a number, but to God they are so much more than a number. They are beloved son and he wants a relationship with them.

When Jesus was berated for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he answered that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

Although the prison was full of men of all ages and crimes, the men we met were all immigrants without papers. Most of which were being incarcerated for drug trafficking across the border. Men from Columbia, Chile, Ecuador, and even as far away as England. Some looking quite young and others middle aged men with graying hair.

The man I personally spoke to knows he made a terrible mistake and yet, there he is behind bars facing a seven year sentence for what he calls carrying cannabis in a car with another man. They were pulled over at the border and that was it.

He’s ten months in and grateful to see anyone from the outside. He spoke very good English and told me practices a lot. He misses his wife and his 12 yr old son terribly. He shares with great sadness that his son cried when he came for a visit. Visitors with family or government delegation is rare due to travel.

A man of great faith and curious how I got to Piura. I tell him I’ll be in Peru for two months, with eagerness he says “maybe you come visit again?” I respond with “I do not know”. Before I leave I ask him to take a seat in a folding chair that’s near by and tell him to close his eyes and open his hands. As I pray over him, I watch tears run down his cheeks. He cares not who sees his vulnerability or tears. I muster up all that I have within me not to cry too, although my heart cries out for him. As soon I leave the room and I’m well beyond the gate I cry for what I just witnessed. The mercy in that moment has no words, only God knows.

So much grace in such a short moment in time. And yet, enough time to change me in ways I do not understand yet. I know he was a good and gentle man that made a very poor choice. He just kept saying “I made a mistake, I know. I made a mistake”.

Now it’s the end of the day and I find myself thinking about him and the moment earlier today. I imagine he misses his family, his home, and even the border he mistakenly crossed. I do not know for sure what today meant to him. What I do know is I will pray for him and I somehow mysteriously I know he’s praying for me.

I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:36, 40)

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