The lectionary Gospel text this week is brought to life for me in the recounting of a story that has beautifully animated our work of developing incarnational leaders for the social and spiritual renewal of cities around the world.
Pastor William Quiñonez has spent the past 5-6 years in a weekly visit to a maximum security prison spending time with members of a notorious street gang who have been incarcerated for unimaginable acts of brutal violence. Pastor William’s “pulpit” has been a seat perched atop the cages where the gang members are held in groups of 10-15.
A Patient Preacher
William visited regularly for over a year, never being allowed to have physical contact with the prisoners 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 voices of condemnation and accusation their entire lives. William longed to find a way to represent a different reality for them.
One day he approached the guards asking for an opportunity to enter the cages instead of having to be on top of them. His heart longed to be in shared space as opposed to the distance brought by remaining above and looking down. His request was denied on multiple occasions but he persisted. Eventually he was granted permission but under the condition that he not come into physical contact with any of the young men. One other stipulation was that he not be allowed to meet with the group that contained the leaders of the gang.
The Word from Below
William took what he was offered and approached the appointed day with great anticipation. The day he entered the cages, the young men were forced to stand against the far side of their holding pens where they were stripped naked and humiliated with cavity searches performed 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, however, perhaps because the previous group times had gone so well, the guards agreed to allow engagement with even the final group, limited to half the time allotted the others.
Until this moment the rule of no physical contact had been observed, but upon conclusion of the time with this last group, one of the key leaders 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 that the young man would try to strangle William during the hug, but instead he whispered into William’s ear, “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 Greek word parakleitos is translated as “advocate.” The Paraclete enters shared space with prisoner to speak in his place and act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, chief defender and destroyer of all pretense of persecution. With a personal advocate by our side, we no longer need to live with the constant feeling that we must defend ourselves against all accusation.
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 into shared space where violence is replaced by the embrace of grace leading to a totally new pattern of desire no longer based on rivalistic posturing.
God is not in rivalry with anyone or anything, ever. And God certainly doesn’t stay on top of cages looking down upon our humanity from afar.