“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever….”
The lectionary Gospel text this week from John 14 was brought to life for me in a very special way through a recent conversation with a ministry mentor here in Guatemala City.
Pastor William Quiñonez visits a maximum security prison once a week to spend time with members of a notorious street gang who have been incarcerated for unimaginable acts of brutal violence. Pastor William literally has to speak with them while he perches atop the cages where they are held in groups of 10-15.
He visited regularly for over a year, never being allowed to have any physical contact with the “basura“* in the cages below. Week after week he looked into the eyes peering up at him from the floor below and his heart softened toward these young men who had heard and experienced only the voice of condemnation and accusation their entire lives. William longed to find a way to represent for them a different reality.
He approached the guards one day and demanded an opportunity to get into the cages instead of having to be on top of them. To be in shared space as opposed to being above and looking down. His request was denied on multiple occasions but he persisted relentlessly. Eventually he was granted permission, but on terms that he would not come into physical contact with any of the young men and that there would be one group, the “ring-leaders,” who would be denied the opportunity.
William took what was offered and approached the appointed day with great anticipation. The day William was allowed to enter shared space, the young men were forced to stand against the far side of the cage, where they were stripped naked and humiliated with cavity searches performed right in front of their waiting visitor.
William had the opportunity to be with 4-5 different groups of young men, with the exclusion of the “ringleaders.” Eventually, perhaps because the previous group times had gone so well, the guards agreed to allow engagement with even the final group, provided it would be for half the time allotted the other ones.
Until this moment the rule of no physical contact had been observed, but upon conclusion of the time with this last group, the leader of the pack asked to give William a hug. The guards adamantly refused but the visiting pastor insisted.
As William recounted for me what happened next, his eyes welled up with tears. The guards were afraid the young man would suddenly try to strangle William during the hug, but instead he whispered into William’s ear, saying, “Thank you for coming every week to the prison to be with us when no one else will. On behalf of all the homies, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” One by one, in front of stunned guards, each of the young men in this most notorious of groups passed by and embraced William in an act of tender gratitude.
In John 14:16, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as Advocator for his “imprisoned disciples.” The word parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of “advocate” or the Latin advocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, chief defender, and destroyer of all representations of persecution. With a personal defender by one’s side, there is no need to feel scandalized or live a life always trying to defend oneself.
There is something profoundly significant to be harvested from John 14 in the distinction between Advocate and Accuser. The Spirit NEVER accuses. Could it be that the difficulty in “knowing” the Spirit is because we are so easily inebriated by the desire to accuse? The normal way of seeking peace is through violence, but the Advocate (Spirit) teaches another way… a way of pulling out of the violence altogether and moving into a totally new pattern of desire that is not based on rivalry. God is not in rivalry with anyone or anything, EVER.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms partner
*The term “basura” means garbage and is the word often used by the guards to refer to the prisoners.