As we enter into the holiday season, I’d like to share with you a story. I can hardly believe it myself, but every bit of it is true, “so help me God.” Admittedly, I’m no Charles Dickens and the prisoner next to me is not exactly Tiny Tim but I’ll try my best to tell it. His name is Milton and he walks with a permanent limp now because of an exchange of bullets he had with someone in the streets.
Natalia and I live in a pretty rough city. A recent crime index listed Rosario, Argentina, as the sixth most violent city in South America. Criminal acts that were once unheard of are daily occurrences now. The illegal drug culture is very violent and has produced a heavy environment that weighs on our spirit a lot.
Those of you who have followed our missions journey may recall that Natalia and I suffered a robbery 4 years ago shortly after we got married. In the middle of the night, two dark shadows walked up the stairs into our bedroom, held us at gunpoint and emptied our home of possessions. The aftermath of that incident has been tremendous and some things will never be the same. It was the worst way to start a marriage. Unfortunately, this type of incident has also become commonplace and I mention it for a reason.
I have been devoted to prison ministry now for more than a decade, some in South Africa, Zambia, 2 years in Buenos Aires and 7 years here in Rosario.
After our incident, things have not been the same. If I’m totally honest, my heart has been filled with such anger and hatred and a desire for justice and revenge that I don’t know how I’ve managed to continue with this ministry. Often I wonder if I’m making a difference or if God even remembers me.
I know none of you have ever had those thoughts, and now you know that I’m not perfect, ha-ha.
But I have continued with my work day after day, month after month and year after year. Sometimes not wanting to go into the prisons and not wanting to be around certain people. Funny thing is, sometimes God doesn’t ask us how we feel about our duties, but that’s a sermon for another day.
Sharing a message of salvation through Jesus Christ, forgiveness, eternal life, restoration and redemption has sometimes left me feeling like a hypocrite because of the hatred that I’ve had inside, but I have faithfully shared that message just the same, because I believe it!
This past Saturday, the guys in the prison put on the anniversary party for us pastors. It’s something they do every year. I honestly didn’t have a desire to go; it was Saturday and I was busy with other things and such. Then one of the prisoners who I’m friends with contacted me and asked me if I was coming? I started thinking about it and I know that it means a lot to those guys. It’s the one time in the year they can do something nice. They make pizzas for us and even bake a large cake. It’s a way for them to show appreciation for the efforts we pastors make.
So, I cleaned up and headed to the prison. There were about 60 prisoners, some of whom I’d never seen before, and eight of us pastors. We introduced ourselves, shared a scripture or something and gave thanks to the guys. Most everyone knows me except for the new faces so I gave a short introduction and shared a short message of forgiveness and redemption through Jesus. Afterwards, one pastor gave a 20-minute sermon with a similar message. Following that, we had praise and worship and we pastors walked around and prayed for each of the prisoners individually. When all of that was finished came my favorite part, the food.
I was sitting next to my friend Louis, a prisoner who has become like a brother to me, and we were joking and laughing. One of the other guys put a drink and a slice of pizza in my hand and I was about to take my first bite. Right then, the young man on crutches approaches me, a prisoner who I’ve never seen before, and he said something. I stopped, looked up and asked him to repeat himself. He stated, “Excuse me, I think I know you. Do you live on Francia Street?”
I replied, “No, I used to live on Francia Street but that was a long time ago, I live in the city center now.”
This prisoner then replied, “Yes, but you used to live on Francia Street in a pasillo?” A “pasillo” is a long hidden row of apartments.
Right then and there, I knew. Lunch time for me was over and I couldn't believe what was now happening. In complete shock, I slowly lifted my head, looked that young man in the eyes and I asked him, “Did you rob me in my home, 4 years ago?”
The prisoner replied, “Yes, I wanted to ask you to forgive me.”
I put my head down, in total disbelief, shaking my head I kept repeating, “This can’t be, this can’t be, this is not possible.” My friend Louis, who’s sitting next to me with eyes wide open said the same thing. In a city of 2 million people, where 80% of criminals are never caught and the ones that are can end up in any of the three major penitentiaries, with each penitentiary having 10-20 cell blocks, this guy ends up in mine at this exact moment.
I honestly felt that the world had stopped and all eyes were on me, thos of our heavenly judge, jury, everyone in that room and this young man. It was at that moment that all of my life was in front of me, the good, the bad, my actions, my words, ministry, my message, everything, and I completely lost it. I started crying right there in front of everyone. Four years of pain, problems, torment and anger all came out. Nobody knew what was happening and I’m sure my fellow pastors were thinking, “What’s wrong with the gringo? He’s awfully emotional today.”
I tried to regain my composure a bit. I looked up and I said, “Yes, I forgive you.”
This young man was completely emotionless and cold to be honest and I have no idea what kind of life he’s had, so I wanted to make sure that he understood forgiveness. I stood up, embraced him and I repeated many times, “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you. Te perdono, mi hermano.”
We chatted briefly but I was still an emotional wreck. He said that when he gets out of prison, he would like to meet up with me and some of the other pastors to ask for prayer. He also stated that he wants to find some way to repay me for the things that he stole.
Obviously, those material things are meaningless to me and all that I hope for is for that young man to be saved. My wife and I are still in total shock, I debated whether or not to even share this but she encouraged me to write it down while I can still recall all of the details.
My pastor here in Rosario has asked me to share this testimony next Sunday with the church, and I hope I can do so without getting too emotional.
Sometimes Christmas presents come early and in the strangest places
Jason Cobb is a missionary from Fayetteville, Ga. He and his wife Natalia serve in Rosario, Argentina.