Inside El Salvador's Prisons: The Reality of True Repentance

Welcome to God’s Church on the Move, the podcast that takes you to the spiritual hotspots of the world where God is actively at work building His Kingdom. With me in the studio today are Ron and Charis Pearce. Welcome, guys.

Ron, Charis — Hi!

Joy — Ok, so I’m excited about today because I know you are excited. You just got back from El Salvador and you have an update for us.

Ron — Well, guys, I’ve been on many trips over my life, and I have walked into situations where I pretty much knew what was going on. I thought I knew what it would be like in El Salvador when I went in there. But unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the last thirty-five years, I was shocked, happily shocked by what I saw. I was surprised beyond belief. I sat in one meeting, and I couldn’t even form a question because I had never even dreamt that this was possible before.

For instance, let me give you some background before we dive into the situation. We heard that something was happening in El Salvador through friends who put us onto it. We asked questions, did zoom calls, and they were talking about this one large church in the country and its outreach to children, prisons, and the impoverished in the countryside.

San Salvador, the capital, is a rich city, but once you get into the countryside, it’s third-world poor. So, I thought, Okay, we can help with this.” We sent some New Testaments for their prison ministry and some children’s Gospels. When I arrived, after hearing about it, I was given numbers and information during the half-hour ride from the airport to my hotel. By the time I got to my hotel, I was really skeptical. I thought, Okay, these guys are exaggerating, it’s not even feasible.” But at the same time, I thought, Well, I’m here anyway, and I need some warm weather. We’ll see, I’m sure there’s something good here.”

I heard about the massive change in society since the 1980s when the country was locked in civil war. Gangs took over, there was prostitution, extortion at every level of every business, protection money, drugs, and all sorts of vices and evil.

Joy — It was a dangerous country for a while.

Ron — Oh, people were getting killed, and there were bodies on the streets. We know of one family where the gentleman was the mayor of the town, and he was killed. The wife, daughter, and son had to flee to Canada. We’ve heard this story before, and there was sadness everywhere. Bloodshed.

But then they told me that the people got tired of this, and they elected a young president a couple of years ago who promised to clean up the mess. So, they passed a law to give stiff sentences to the gangs and all the evil, and they started locking them up. Eight months ago, they began this initiative, and let me share the numbers with you.

There are twenty-one prisons in the country, and this church is operational in seventeen of them. Before the law was passed and before they started this eight months ago, there were fewer than forty thousand prisoners. Let’s say today, there are still less than forty thousand. This was a solid number. But today, eight months later, there are ninety-two thousand prisoners in the jails. That’s a growth of fifty-two thousand in just eight months, and this number is still growing. Now, the brother told me, he says the curve is flattening on this, but it’s going to be well over 100,000.

Oh, people were getting killed, and there were bodies on the streets.

Joy: So, you’re saying there’s a politician who followed through on his word. Wow!

Ron: They pass this law and they go twenty years, it’s like a minimum sentence, thirty years, and they are concurrent as well, so if you’ve done multiple crimes or whatever, you can go in for ninety years! So, they literally took them, put them in jail, and threw away the key. These people are paying the price for their sins. The people in the countryside, their economy has changed. There is business coming in, there is peace on the streets. I keep getting asked by these guys, don’t you look outside and all of a sudden you can see that you can go for a walk at night or you can do this or that, there is freedom now, they are not going to shoot you!

Joy: Wow, so clearly they were missing that in their lives. Wow.

Ron: Oh yeah, they kept bringing it up to me and I thought, well, this is normal. I felt better on the streets there than I did in most cities in North America right now. So, they called it, they were putting them in prison for belonging to an illicit association or gang participation, and this was both men and women in these prisons. So they said, we have now gone into these prisons and there are Bible studies, there are Bible schools, there are seminaries, there are pastors who are prisoners who have become pastors. We needed these New Testaments to start them off because the hunger for God is so great, and they said, now get this, I hope everyone is sitting down for this, they said approximately half of all the prisoners now in the prisons have accepted the Lord. And that is when I sat back in my seat and thought, okay sure, I’ve heard this story before. Alright, next morning we get up early, we go to one of these prisons. I’m going to tell you exactly, I’ll paint a picture of what this looked like. There were 1800 prisoners in here, in the prison, and we went in here and this was sort of like a medical issue prison. It wasn’t like a hospital, but there were hospital beds in one little section, and there were 1800 there. We walked in, but before we did, we got to talk to the warden of the prison, and he sort of sketched out for us many things. There were two things that popped out in this conversation that I want to talk to you about. First of all, they said there is a massive turning to God and a hunger for God and a transformation of these prisoners. And they said this transformation is only due to the Gospel, that Jesus has come into their lives, and this transformation is real. This was the warden. And then we said, well, have you tried anything before? They said nothing else that we have tried in the past has worked. This is the only thing that has worked.

Charis: Was the warden a believer? Is this a one-off because he was in charge of this, or is this in many different prisons?

Ron: This is in every prison, the same story. I think he was a believer. I cannot be absolutely positive of that because I didn’t want to ask him. I just wanted to gain the information.

Joy: If he’s not, it’s only a matter of time.

Ron: Well yeah, and the guards too, both male and female, were impressed with these prisoners and the changes.

Charis: This prison is just an example of many other prisons doing the same thing.

Ron- Not all, the high-security ones, I don’t think they’re in. There are four of them, high-security, and I don’t think they are in there right now. But of the seventeen that they are operational in, this is major stuff. So the second thing he said was this, we help them to become disciples of Christ by giving them strong discipline, and I thought there is an idea, wow, ok. So, what did you mean by that? Well, he says we have strict discipline of the prisoners; they get up at, I think it was 4:30 in the morning, and they go to bed at night at around 7:30. They are structured in their lives, in their duties; they have to have this Bible study; they will have all these hours to study; they’ve got Bible studies regularly. They have teaching coming at them; they are allowed Bibles, and they need more Bibles, more New Testaments, whatever you’ve got!” So he says, we put structure around their lives. Which is basically where the word discipleship comes from; it’s a structured walk with God, so this guy was really good! And I didn’t even see the prisoners yet! So here we are, I’m getting my adrenaline going, and we walk into the prison. We go through the gates and the doors and make sure we didn’t take any radios or telephones. They have put blockers on any electronics getting in, any waves. When I say that there is no phone reception in the prisons, you don’t have anything electronic in there. A gang head cannot guide his organization on the outside; there is no communication. And this is going to be for twenty to ninety years, so this is a dead-end that they are in. So, we walk in and walk down these hallways into this basketball court sort of courtyard with cells on either side, big cell areas where probably twenty or thirty prisoners would sleep on bunk beds. We walk into this, and six hundred are there for church! There are 1800 in the prison, and there are 600 in front of us; they couldn’t get the other 300 in, and they wanted us to stay for a second service with them. So I said, so actually half are believers?” and he said, yes.” And then the service started, the worship was so strong, I was watching these guys on their knees, hands raised, tears coming down their cheeks. I look for indicators in situations like this. The indicators are I want to see your Bible. And so here we were, I looked over the entire crowd, those that had Bibles with them, they were dog-eared, they were underlined, I made sure I noticed this for one brother, he had underlined various sections. These were well-used Bibles, and many of them were falling apart, and that is a perfect sign. Then I saw their reactions to certain things, their body language while they worship. Not just hands raised, you can raise your hands and put on a good front and play a game, and I’m sure that many of the prisoners were tempted to play a game. So I asked the warden about that too, I said, do you think all of them that we have in this group here, do you think they are all believers?” Well, he says if they do not act like a believer and follow the teachings of the Word, if there is anything, they go back to the other side” and I said, what do you mean the other side?” He says half of the prison is for the general population of the unsaved. When they accept Christ, they go over to the Christian half of the prison.” I said, you’re kidding!” You’ve got a 50/50, and when you are born again, you leave the side of the unbelievers and come over with the body of Christ. Yes.” Never have I seen this, never. Maybe there are in certain situations around the world small numbers of this, but never anything of this size. So, we sat there, and I just could not believe it. They were listening to the Word when the Word was preached; they were intently listening. I said also this, I said, do they ever mock the preaching?” and they said, oh no, that doesn’t happen.”

Not just hands raised, you can raise your hands and put on a good front and play a game, and I’m sure that many of the prisoners were tempted to play a game.

And the warden said, or one of the guards, I guess it was, No, that doesn’t happen, the prisoners take care of that themselves.” In other words, there is a code of ethics in conduct among the Christians on how to handle things. Everything was different; you could even see it in the women guards. They were happy to be assigned to the Christian side rather than the non-Christian side of the prison because of the way they were treated. Therefore, I thoughtAnd the warden said, or one of the guards, I guess it was, said, No, that doesn’t happen, the prisoners take care of that themselves.” In other words, there is a code of ethics in conduct among the Christians on how to handle things. Everything was different; you could even see it in the women guards. They were happy to be on the Christian side of the prison rather than the non-Christian side because of how they were treated. Therefore, I thought to myself, this is incredible! Now, after that was said, I asked, So what do we need?” They said, We need Bibles.” So, we have taken in 18,000 full large print Bibles right now, and probably another 35,000 or more going in. We’ve got to feed this revival. They have all sorts of needs for Bibles with commentaries like Life Application Bibles that have notes around the scriptures explaining things. We are taking those into the pastors because they have started Bible schools/​seminaries in all of the active prisons. They are training pastors in there, probably studying eight to ten hours a day, every single day, in the things of God. When these guys get out after 20 years or whatever it is, because I’m not sure how paroles will be handled in this, but you are going to have an army of the most dedicated Bible-knowledgeable prisoners. The Sauls turning into Pauls in a prison in El Salvador where they have all this scripture around them, they are getting trained. We are going to have pastoral study notes for everybody, we are going to saturate this situation. There is absolutely no doubt. So, it has come from probably one of the most dangerous places on earth, cleaned up on the streets, people are safer and now it is going to an area of, Okay, we got to take these guys and give them a chance to reform that entire part of the world.” We’re going to feed them with the Word.

Charis- The government thinks they changed the country now, just wait until they get out!

Ron- Oh yeah, I anticipate this is going to be unbelievable. And that is why when I tell folks this and they are listening at home thinking it can’t be true, I know, I was a skeptic too until I saw this. You’re going to have to believe me, you’re going to have to believe the others that were with us that day on the trip, you’re going to have to believe a warden, you’re going to have to believe all these people that are witnessing this every single day. They are starting a mega prison there of 20,000 in one high-security prison. I want to see what happens there! I want to see how many of these bad boys really come over from the high-security one. These guys have been steeped in sin, so we’ll see how this goes. The other thing that I’m going to share with people is that we are also working with the kids. They’ve got these after-school classes helping the kids with their schooling, with their lives, etcetera. We went to a church and all these little churches, there are around 220 of them that the mother church from San Salvador is working with, there are about 200 – 220 of these smaller village churches, and they’ve changed them during the week so that after school they will take these little kids, aged 4 – 14, and help them with their schooling, give them Christian education, feed them, show them love, all of these things. So, we went to one of these. You wouldn’t believe these little kids. They were so sweet, so loving. I got more hugs than I get from my girls! These little kids were coming up and giving us all hugs, and they were singing songs. They only go to school for half a day, so I think they start at 7:30 in the morning and they go until noon, or they go from noon to 5:30 in the evening. It’s one of those arrangements. During the off hours, the mothers and fathers help the children come to these sessions, and they are granted permission to bring their children. The cost is very low, and they even have cute little t‑shirts for the kids. They have requested New Testaments, children’s Bibles, and anything that can help feed these kids so that their parents can hear the Gospel and lead their families in the ways of God. We are going to work on fulfilling these requests. There are many other things happening in El Salvador, but the prison ministry is the one I wanted to share with you. We have given up on many aspects of society, but this shows me the transformative power of the Gospel to reach even the worst of the worst and bring redemption. I will be doing a sermon on this topic called True Repentance. You could see it on the faces of these prisoners — they were genuinely sorry, embarrassed, and eager to change. They know that only the power of God can redeem their lives. This is true repentance.

Joy: Ok, I told you he was excited! This is excellent news. El Salvador is truly becoming a spiritual hotspot, and we can’t wait to hear more updates from this country.

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