I was invited over the weekend for a thanksgiving/send-off service. When the invitation came, I was not sure I would attend because I thought I had a program in church on that day. Fortunately, I learned in time that the program was not for that particular Sunday, but for the next one. The coast was therefore clear for me to attend the service I was invited to. On that Saturday morning however, I began to feel feverish and this again cast doubt on my ability to honour the invitation. Nevertheless, after a long night rest, I was strong enough to make a firm decision not to miss the service.
I set off on a rainy Sunday morning. My destination: the maximum-security prisons in Lagos, Nigeria. The event was the thanksgiving service of the Pastor of the protestant group of churches in the maximum-security prisons. He had been an inmate for eight years and it was time to leave.
I got there just in time for the start of the service. I was ushered into the hall where the service was being held. It was packed full. I was given a seat in the reserved area for special guests. As I was being ushered to my seat, I looked up and saw the Pastor beaming at me from the platform. I smiled as he whispered to the person beside him, apparently telling him who I was. At that moment, I silently thanked God for not allowing me miss this occasion.
“Welcome to the church in the wilderness!” announced the Assistant Pastor as he started off the service. He continued, “We want to assure you that this church has everything you can find in any church in the free world. Relax and join us as we praise the Lord for the life of this man God brought into our lives, and who has made tremendous impact in the lives of many people in this facility”.
The worship session started and I could not help observing the people in the hall. At that moment, there was no difference between the prisoner and visitor. We all blended together in worship and praise to God. We stood as equals before God who is no respecter of persons. The Assistant Pastor was right, the quality of worship was better than what obtained in some churches out there. I saw the zeal and the passion among the choir members. It didn’t matter whether some of these ones had been convicted for theft, robbery or even murder. What mattered was that they had found God here. God had made a difference in their lives and they were willing to serve Him even in this place.
It was time for speeches and I was amazed at the things said about this man, this Pastor whom I had known when he was out in the world. I had known him longer than anyone except one, his mother, in that room. I heard how God had used him to transform lives, how he went from block to block, cell to cell to minister the love of Christ. I heard how he reached out to churches and ministries beyond the prison gates for the provision of musical instruments, food and medicines for the inmates and how he used whatever resources he had to bless others.
It was no wonder therefore that tears flowed in that service. The Deputy Controller of Prisons gave this remark, ‘I am happy and I am not happy. I am happy my friend is being released from prison but I am not happy my friend is leaving me’
Amazing still, was the calibre of people who attended the service, apart from the churches, ministries and NGOs in attendance. In that service were staunch Moslems. The Deputy Controller of Prisons was a Catholic.
By the time I was called upon to speak, I was short of words. I looked at this man I had known for years before he came to this place. He looked at me and there was a communication nobody in that room could understand. This was not just a man who decided to serve God because he found himself in prison. This was a man sold out to God. I will be waiting at the gates of the maximum-security prisons to welcome him into the free world but I do not know where God is taking him.
I am rest assured however, that if he could make such impact in the lives of people in that enclave, nothing will stop him from making bigger impact in the lives of people outside, where there are no walls to limit his movement.
This encounter reminded me of the following verses in the Bible;
"I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus." (Philipians 3:10-14 NIVUK)