Charles Colson is a former aid to President Nixon who was imprisoned for his part in the Watergate affair. Subsequently, he began a prison ministry. Colson once visited Humaita Prison, in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. Formerly a government prison, Humaita is now operated by Prison Fellowship Brazil as an alternative prison, without armed guards or high-tech security. Instead, it is run on the Christian principles of love of God and respect for others.
Humaita has only two full-time staff. The 730 inmates serving time for everything from murder to robbery and drug-related crimes do the rest of the work. When Colson visited this prison, he found the inmates smiling--particularly the murderer who held the keys to the gates, who let him in. Wherever he walked, Colson saw men at peace. He saw clean living areas. He saw people working industriously. The walls were decorated with motivational sayings and Scripture. Humaita has an astonishing record. Its recidivism rate is 4 percent, compared to 75 percent in the rest of Brazil. How is that possible?
Colson saw the answer when his inmate-guide escorted him to the notorious cell once used for solitary punishment. The guide explained that now it houses only one inmate. As they reached the end of the long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, the inmate paused and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in?”
“Of course,” Colson replied impatiently. “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.”
Slowly his inmate-guide swung open the massive door, and Colson saw the prisoner in that cell: a beautifully carved crucifix---Jesus hanging on the cross. “He’s doing time for the rest of us,” the guide said softly.
That may seem like a pretty brutal image, but we live in a pretty brutal world. A world not only where people do some bad things but too many people fail to do enough good things. A world of small slights and cruelties, of easy excuses and cold shoulders. To put it in traditional theological language: we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.
Whether we are the criminal on death row or the churchgoer who grows impatient or hostile over little things, we do not always do what love requires of us. Or what God asks of us. We need to be forgiven. Which is why we call the day Jesus died, Good. Not for him, but for us. His suffering brought our salvation: from thinking that we can live our lives for ourselves alone, from fearing that we must live our lives alone, from the consequences of our bad behavior, from ourselves.
We can walk into the room where he suffers alone, see him there and say, “He’s doing time for me.” He is there for each of us. For you. For me. For the world. I hope you’ll join us for the services of Holy Week to experience love at its most vulnerable and its most visible. There are no other worship times quite like these in our church. None other that communicate how an instrument of death has been turned into the symbol of life, and how the one who died there can transform our troubled, anxious spirits into channels of his peace.