Well you know
We all want to change the world…
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out
– From Revolution by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, The Beatles
An atmosphere of political unrest and social upheaval hung in the air like smog during my first visits to Peru. As a university student I had fancied myself to be a bit of a radical – leftist and anti-institutional. My journey into radicalism and revolutionary thinking suddenly took a turn when I encountered Jesus Christ as I had never known. It began with a campus poster announcing a lecture entitled “Christ the Revolutionary” and ended with my cynicism giving way to the realization that nothing is more revolutionary than love, sacrificial love for the sake of others – even enemies. My life was forever changed, and several years later I found myself working in Peru during a time of growing social upheaval.
Across the country university students were protesting, workers were demonstrating in the cities, and a growing Marxists movement was finding fertile ground particularly among the rural poor. I couldn’t blame the poor for demanding justice and liberty. Peru was ruled by the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces and more than fifty percent of the people were living below the poverty line while twenty five percent were completely destitute in a country where eighty percent of the arable land was controlled by a wealthy three percent. Socio-economic inequity and political dictatorship had inevitably created a very volatile situation.
Every year, for three years I went to Peru to teach a “counter revolutionary” course designed to help youth workers reach out to marginalized and poor young people with the message of God’s transforming love. We had the idea that God’s love was ultimately more revolutionary than any other intervention. Several years later I began working with Prison Fellowship International and returned to Peru and saw that the Marxists movement had gained a lot of ground. While a newly elected government had replaced the military regime, the Marxist oriented “Shining Path” liberation movement was growing had had turned to violence and terrorist tactics. Many people were suffering as the economic inflation rate had more than doubled to one hundred and twenty percent. Peru had become a tinder box of turmoil that was reflected in growing numbers of prisoners and increased prison violence.
In 1983 I had met Sister Ana and her three companion nuns in the infamous Lurigancho prison. Now, a year later I was returning to Lurigancho just months after Sister Ana and her companions had been taken hostage in a prison riot. The hostage takers used Sister Ana to convey their demands to the authorities and in the ensuing standoff a deal was struck for “safe” passage of the hostage takers. When the ambulance carrying the prisoners and their hostages approached the prison gates the police and military opened fire and within minutes seven prisoners and Sister Joan, a nun from Ireland were dead – shot by the guards. Sister Ana and two other nuns survived the bloodbath.
As we approached Lurigancho I did not expect that Sister Ana would still be there. The area around the prison looked like a military encampment, surrounded by an array of police vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and bristling with machine-gun toting guards. Tensions in and around the prison were running high, fueled by continuing agitation among the inmates and escalating attacks by the Shining Path on prisons around the country in order to free their sympathizers. Our visit also happened to coincide with the investigative re-enactment of the hostage stand-off; much to my surprise Sister Agatha was there – forced to relive the trauma of that day. Yet, as when we first met, her calm and peaceful countenance conveyed a sense of joy and hope.
“Will you ever be going back into the prison to do your ministry?” I asked, expecting her to tell me she’d been reassigned. “Yes of course, it’s my life she said – Jesus loves us so much He suffered on the cross – and Sister Joan gave her life for these prisoners – this is my vocation and the men need to know God’s love.” We chatted a little more before she was abruptly escorted into the prison by a guard. I did not see her again during that visit. Two months later the authorities granted Sister Ana permission to resume ministry in Lurigancho even though it was still a dangerous place and even more crowded than before. Within a year she was brutally taken hostage for the second time – once again her life was spared, and once again she returned to care for the Shining Path guerillas and other violent men.
In 2012 Sister Ana was interviewed at Lurigancho by Mariana Bozo, a journalist who could not comprehend how she kept going back to prison after the horrific things she had been subjected to.
“What’s a nun doing in a place like this?” she asked.
“I guess it’s the rebel in me,” replied Sister Ana quite simply,
“I identify with them.”
I’ve often fancied myself to be a radical and courageous follower of Jesus as I’ve visited Lurigancho and more than a thousand different prisons all over the world – but I don’t think there are any people, more radical and courageous than sister Ana, who deliberately keeps putting her life on the line. Her joyful faithful presence in a terrifying prison powerfully conveys the revolutionary message of God’s love in ways that cannot be contained in words. Her faith is more than a radical idea, her ministry goes far beyond loving and gracious words – it is her way of life – the way of Jesus.
If even ten percent of people who say they are Christians would actually follow Jesus as Sister Ana does into the prisons of the world, or into the ghettos, the hospitals and orphanages, and the lonely anguished corners of addiction or front lines of exploitation – now that would be truly radical and that would bring about a revolution.
To truly be radical, you and I have got to live “out of our minds.”
Jesus said to his disciples:
If any of you want to be my followers,
you must forget about yourself.
You must take up your cross and follow me.
If you want to save your life
you will destroy it.
But if you give up your life for me,
you will find it.
Matthew 16: 24, 25 CEVUS