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A woman of peace in a place of violence

FRANCISCO MORAZAN, Honduras (BP)–An exposed bulb dangles from the ceiling by a black wire and throws its harsh light around the cramped cinder-block room. Tattooed bodies crowd the space or stare in past the heavy steel door. This cell’s location is deep within the bowels of a Honduran prison. All of the young men present are gang members, and most are killers or rapists — or both.

At the center of this sea of inked flesh sits Amy Johnson, a perfectly postured, fair-complected redhead. Her soft voice forces the prisoners to lean in to hear her. Her sincere smile melts their calloused hearts, and her deep-penetrating brown eyes reach beyond their hardened exteriors to their souls. They call her Mamita, translated, “Little Mom.”

“She makes us feel like we are not forgotten,” says Danny Boy, a prisoner and the leader of one gang. (Most gang members use nicknames.) “People treat us like animals, but not her. She listens to us, and we respect her a lot.”

Johnson, 47, an International Mission Board missionary, always teaches gang members Bible stories in the six prisons she visits throughout the week. But it’s not the Scripture she teaches that is the basis for her ministry. It’s the Scripture she lives. She introduces gang members to Jesus and helps them get to know him better.

“It’s not telling a person they have value; it’s showing them,” she says. “You can’t tell a person Jesus loves them but never do anything for them. You have to show them what the love of Christ looks like.”

Sunday: women’s prison

Johnson passes through the security gate and starts up the covered walkway. At first sighting, young women ages 16-19 mob her. All are gang members. Johnson compliments their hair, asks how their week has been and asks about their families. She then gently places a small teddy bear in her basket. She’ll deliver it tomorrow to one girl’s boyfriend who is serving time in another prison.

The small band pulls Johnson toward the meeting room like young children excitedly pulling their mother to see a picture they’ve just colored. Everyone wants to touch her. Johnson sets up her flannel board and removes her big Bible from her small backpack. Chairs are gathered. Today’s lesson is from Acts: Ananias and Sapphira. The lesson on deception and theft hits close to home.

The lesson ends, and one by one the girls ask to meet privately with her. Johnson never knows what situations will arise, but she always prepares herself through prayer, asking God for wisdom in what she says. Today she needs it.

“I have AIDS,” says the teenager standing before her, head lowered in shame and despair. Her life is over. The gang might take it, or the disease, or she might take her own life. Both cry; Johnson embraces her. Johnson knows unconditional love is the girl’s only hope.

Monday: national prison

It is incredible artwork, really, considering the canvas is skin. One tattooed body after another streams out of the cellblock as Johnson strolls from daylight, past a huge portrait of the Virgin Mary standing vigilant at the entrance, and into the dimly lit maze of cinderblock rooms that serve as cells. Facial tattoos are common, and Johnson long ago overcame the shock of seeing the large, blocked “666” that stretches from one temple to the other of some of the inmates. Nearly all of these guys are in their late teens or early 20s. Most boldly admit they doubt they’ll ever see 30.

Johnson settles into one of the cells and reads a letter from the girlfriend of one of the gang members. Those gathered lean in to listen. There is something awkward about someone so hardened struggling with the love issues that plague almost every adolescent in suburban America. He seeks motherly advice from Johnson. His own mother won’t come to see him.

“So many of their families either won’t come see them or can’t get here to see them,” Johnson says. “Some of their parents won’t pay the fines to get them out because they’d rather have them alive in prison than dead on the streets.”

Whatever she said helped because the two are laughing and smiling as she leaves the cell more than an hour later.

“A lot of what I do is just listen,” Johnson says. “They just want someone to take an interest in them.”

Tuesday: juvenile prison

The 15-year-old boy with bandaged arms can’t wait to see Johnson. He rushes to meet her and, at first opportunity, pulls her to the side. He whispers something; Johnson smiles and pulls him close in a hug. He accepted Christ as his Savior two nights ago.

His journey to the cross wasn’t easy. The bandages are from when a rival gang captured him and tried to burn his gang’s tattoos from his arms. He’s lucky to be alive. He’s even luckier to be in jail. Jail provided the chance for him to hear about Jesus.

“He started coming to the Bible stories and told me he wanted to get out of the gang,” Johnson recounts. “He changed the way he dressed and asked me for a Bible. I’m just so excited about his decision.”

Johnson finishes the story — Noah’s Ark — and a few guys gather around her. The new believer has brought several friends to Johnson. She gives them each a short lesson plan, and they work through the blanks. One boy asks for a Bible.

“I will give you a Bible when you learn to read,” Johnson says, and turns to the others in the group. “It is your job to teach him to read. You have to help him learn to read so he can read the Bible for himself.”

They promise to, and tell her they’ve formed a new gang — a Bible study gang. The boy with the bandages is the leader.

Wednesday: Comayagua prison

Stepping through the cage into the prison yard is like buying a ticket to a three-ring circus. Salsa music blares from an assortment of speakers as a man shouts to be heard above the noise. He’s selling lottery tickets. Another man sitting in a hammock tosses crude comments in the direction of some female guests. Others are begging spare change to possibly buy a cigarette at one of the many concession stands lining the narrow, outdoor passages in the prison’s maize. The smell of deep-fried whatever lingers in the air.

Johnson draws stares as she greets the two muscular young men who are waiting for her. Both were members of a gang. One’s nickname was Satan. Now he’s known simply as “Hector”*. Johnson has a picture of Satan; shaved head, scowling face, a lot of attitude. That was before. Now he smiles constantly. The difference is Jesus in his heart.

Hector is not the only one. Of the four groups Johnson will teach in this prison, three groups are former gang members.

“The reason we are out is because Amy shared Jesus with us,” Hector says. “What she teaches us is that there is hope.”

Behind enemy lines

The week continues, and prisons are revisited. Johnson takes one day to plan for the coming week, and prayer is the foundation on which every day is constructed. Tears often splash her lesson plans as she pleads with God on behalf of one gang member after another. There is an urgency in her voice that equals the urgency of their situations. Life is cheap in their world and often meets a violent end. Ten people with whom Johnson has worked were either murdered in prison or when they got out.

“They just don’t see their lives as valuable,” Johnson says. “They see it as an honor to die for the gang. They believe so much in their cause of destroying their enemies. For me, the most difficult thing is knowing that they will spend eternity in hell if they don’t accept Christ before something happens to them.”

Johnson sees their faces — faces like the popular gang leader who sat in many of her classes. She shared the gospel with him, and every time he politely refused the invitation to give his life to Christ. He was murdered after he was transferred from one prison to another. Johnson grieved with the gang members.

Seeing so many lives wasted is discouraging. Satanic rituals and pacts are common practice. One prisoner’s nickname is “Lucifer,” and he prides himself on being “Satan’s right-hand man.”

God’s desire for them, however, is to experience spiritual freedom, even if physical freedom from prison never comes.

“This is not something to take lightly,” says Johnson. “Before I ever got to Honduras to do this the Lord showed me it wasn’t going to be easy. When you are in Satan’s territory, he doesn’t like it. I spend a lot of time seeking God. I don’t dare go into the prisons without being covered with the blood of Jesus.”

For security, Johnson relies on her Bible. She can’t say which is her favorite verse, but flips through one brightly highlighted page after another in Jeremiah. Through the Weeping Prophet’s writing, God promises his presence to Johnson. In return, Johnson gives her life completely to him.

“I guess I see myself before the Lord as a handmaiden,” she says. “I want my life to glorify him.”

And even in the most hostile of spiritual environments, gang members not only hear that Jesus loves them, but also see him every week in the form of a slender redhead with gentle eyes and a warm smile.