Behind Bars in Bolivia: Missionaries, Pastors Celebrate Expanding Prison Ministry
By Carl Stagner
A relatively young ministry has already made a remarkable impact through the Church of God in Bolivia. Though only about four years into the coordinated efforts to take the gospel behind bars, both prisoners and families of the incarcerated have felt the love of Jesus through the sacrifice of Church of God congregations willing to invest in people who might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. As the inaugural work in one prison has led to opportunities to serve in more, Church of God missionaries, pastors, and local congregations in Bolivia have also discovered the power of partnership in establishing and sustaining something beyond what any one church might accomplish alone.
The prison ministry in Bolivia might have started out of necessity, but the less-than-ideal circumstances of its origins fade today in the light of what God has done over the past four years. Paul Jones, missionary for Global Strategy to Bolivia, along with his wife Kattia and their family, explains how the prison ministry began.
“Two of our brothers found themselves locked up,” Paul explains. “One was there due to a false accusation (he was released a year later after his accuser confessed to lying about him). This brother has testified that, prior to being incarcerated, he was not very active in church and not committed to the Lord. His family had been attending the Church of God in their neighborhood, but he was not too interested. Through his time in jail, he recognized his need for a relationship with Christ and truly came to faith. Another brother was also in prison at the same time, so they began having worship services.”
Over time, interest among the inmates grew, accentuating the need for a space designated for worship. A former Catholic worship center that had devolved into a storage room after years of inactivity soon proved to be just the place. With the help of outside congregations, renovation and construction was completed. As Paul Jones puts it, “This has become our first Church of God established inside prison walls.”
Not only does the congregation behind bars hold regular services and Bible studies, but also several special events—including all-day evangelistic campaigns and the church’s anniversary celebration (called a junta)—have been held onsite. A portable swimming pool has served as their baptismal, functioning on numerous occasions.
Paul Jones paints the picture of partnership that provides the support required to make it all happen.
“In the Cochabamba Valley, we have about thirty congregations,” he explains. “Assistance to the prison ministry is delegated to the churches on a rotational basis. Whenever an activity is planned, it always includes food. The church that is next on the list will usually have a group of brothers and sisters, often fifteen or more, who will take off work to prepare a full meal for all of the inmates and guards (400-plus!). In Bolivia a meal usually consists of sopa y segundo, which means ‘soup and a second plate.’ It’s a full meal lovingly prepared for everyone at no cost to them. The church itself covers all the cost of feeding each time. Recently, the churches have banded together to build additional housing facilities within a couple of the prisons, as well as repairing roofs. Some of our architects will make the plans, our engineers will make sure the construction is strong, and our builders will put it all together. The ministry has now grown into at least two more prisons, one being a women’s prison. We have also received request to minister in other prisons in new areas.”
Soup and a second plate may not seem like much to readers in the United States and Canada. It might not even seem particularly special for North American prisoners. But for the inmates in Bolivia, the meals provided by the Church of God are a big deal. A really big deal.
“The people in the prisons are being touched directly by the love of God in action,” Paul explains. “In Bolivia the government does not provide food for the inmates. Family members must bring them food or money to purchase food. Inmates also build things out of wood and metal, which are sold out on the street in order to earn money to be able to eat. I have heard that some will have nothing to eat for days at a time. So, they are really thankful for a full meal when the church comes to minister.”
“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ —Matthew 25:36 NIV
Learn more about the Church of God in Bolivia, and discover opportunities to support the work of the Joneses, there by visiting www.chogglobal.org/team/pkjones.
Feature (top) photo: Construction, renovation on the dedicated worship space within prison walls.