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Hot Peppers and Cupped Hands:
Cross-Cultural Prison Evangelism

by Jay Leatherman
with Alfy Austin


The scene was the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. I came to the prison, not as a result of a felony, but as part of the Bill Glass Evangelistic Association Total Prison Weekend outreach.

It was late on Saturday afternoon, my second day of sharing the Gospel with the inmate population. I was not having much success; I was tired, sore, and nearly out of gas. I was tempted to sneak back to the air-conditioned haven of the officer's roll-call room for a nap. I prayed for help.

No sooner had I prayed than I was approached by a tall, skinny, redhead with a bushy beard. We began to talk and I soon discovered he was a believer. I followed him to his cell where we talked for awhile. As I was about to leave he offered me some hot peppers he had grown behind one of the cell houses. I declined, but he insisted and I left with a pocket full of hot peppers.

I was so exhausted I did not feel I could strike up another conversation. I even told the Lord that if He wanted me to talk to another person He would have to move that person to initiate the conversation.

As I walked through the cellhouse two inmates, Efren Rodriguez and Roberto Lopez (not their real names), beckoned me from their cell. Both inmates were Cuban; their English was spotty and my Spanish was non-existent. Groping for some way to communicate with these men, I remembered my bulging pocket of hot peppers. When they enthusiastically accepted my offer, I passed the peppers to them through the bars of their cell.

Now it was the two inmates I had in my pocket.

I asked them, "Do you guys love Jesus?"

"Oh yeah, we love Jesus," they replied.

"Does He forgive your sins and give you a home in heaven?" I asked.

They didn't know about that, so I asked if I could teach them about it. They seemed eager, but Efren had to leave to go to work. We agreed that I would teach Roberto and that he would later teach Efren.

I could only understand about ten percent of what Roberto said, and I wasn't quite sure how much of what I said was clear to him. But with the help of a Spanish tract, I launched into the Gospel. Finally, I managed to get the idea of substitution for sin across using the prison bars as an illustration and saying that Jesus came to be executed in Roberto's place.

My attempts to explain the free gift of salvation were met with blank stares. I just could not get the concept across. Then I remembered the sight of Roberto and Efren reaching out with cupped hands to receive the hot peppers. That was the picture of grace and faith I needed. I put my hands together, palms up, and said, "Receiving Jesus' gift of eternal life is like doing this when someone wants to give you hot peppers." I could see the comprehension in Roberto's eyes.

I pressed on, saying, "I wanted you to have the peppers, but they were not yours until . . ."

"Until I go like this," he said, finishing my sentence as he extended his cupped hands.

"That's how Jesus becomes your Cristo and how you can know His love," I said.

I knew he got it but I couldn't say more because we had to leave for supper.

That night, during an evangelistic program, Roberto responded instantly when the speaker gave the invitation to receive Jesus as Savior. I met Roberto and we prayed together. When he looked up he stuck out his cupped hands and said, "Now I go like this and Jesus is mine."

Sunday morning I spoke with Roberto again. I asked him what happened in his cell the night before.

"I teach Efren," he replied, "and he go like this." As he said the word this, he reached out with his hands cupped upward.

I have received two letters from Roberto since my weekend visit to the prison. In both he testified of his new life in Christ.

God worked in a wonderful way to provide me with the picture I needed to break the language barrier and communicate the truth of faith and grace. My experience is a reminder of God's work in evangelism. When we lack strength and don't know what to do next, He will always come through. The picture God gave me is a reminder of the simplicity of the message we have to share. The Gospel can be communicated even when language fails us.



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