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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.
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.
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
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
as he extended his cupped hands.
"That's how Jesus becomes
your Cristo and how you can know His love," I said.
he got it but I couldn't say more because we had to leave for
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."
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,
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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