02/27/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

No Shining Path

Our labor has ended,
the armed struggle has begun.
The invincible flames of revolution will glow,
turning to lead and steel.
There will be a great rupture
and we will be the makers of a new dawn.
We shall convert the black fire into red
and the red fire into pure light.
- From a speech by Abimael Guzman quoted by Gustavo Gorriti
in La Hittoria de Gerra Milenaria Vol 1 p. 66-7

What is the worst prison you've ever visited? I'm frequently asked. Sometimes I respond by saying that every prison is the worst one I've ever been in. A prison is a prison is a prison -- but having said that, one of my first and most poignant prison visits was to San Juan de Lurigancho prison located on an arid dusty plain outside of Lima, Peru. On that visit I came face to face with what can best be described as an inferno of inhumanity, overcrowding, anguish, and injustice. It was seething with hostility and pain.

It was during the early 1980s when the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerillas had thrown the country into turmoil, fighting to overthrow the government and achieve the Marxist dream of liberation for the poor. Lurigancho reflected that turmoil. Nearly 6000 prisoners were jammed into stifling overcrowded cells and pavilions designed for a population of less than 2000. Most of the prisoners were un-sentenced, poor and illiterate men who had found their way into the city, desperately seeking a better life. Many were simply escaping from the violent brutality of both the military and guerilla forces that were destroying their lives and livelihood, only to discover that the city offered little hope and little protection. Others were drug dealers or men accused of being guerilla members and "Shining Path" collaborators. There was no justice to be seen in prison, only the dreary containment of people considered to be a threat. And so, amid shattered dreams and impotence, inmates languished in the "hell-hole," Lurigancho. There was no shining path of hope and liberation ahead for them.

Throughout history political revolutions have inevitably taken root in the dreams and fears of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people of society. In Peru the Shining Path liberation movement, founded by Abimael Guzman fought a bloody and vicious guerilla war against the state for more than ten years. Although exact numbers are difficult to determine the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that between 40 - 60 thousand people died or disappeared and that more than 200 thousand people were displaced. Most of the victims were poor rural peasants -campesinos, the very same oppressed people for whom the Shining Path was promising hope and liberation.

The 1980s were a very dangerous time in Peru, and yet I felt compelled to visit the worst prison in that country because I passionately believed that Jesus Christ had come to liberate the oppressed and bring freedom to the prisoners. But I hardly knew what that really meant or looked like. A lot of things were going through my mind as the prison director and his armed guards escorted us across the hot and dusty yard into the prison. He was an intensely stern man, difficult to converse with, and I knew his job was both hard and hazardous. As we walked along a couple of seemingly stray dogs approached us and to make conversation I remarked - "unusual, these dogs among so many prisoners - how many dogs are there in this prison?" Without any hesitation he responded, "five thousand eight hundred - I have five thousand eight hundred dogs in here," he spat out. I chose to neither question him nor comment on what he said, for it was clear that he did not regard the prisoners as having any human worth or dignity. They were beneath him. Yet just like them he had no hope and it was all he could do to control them as one would control a large herd of animals.

We toured the prison as if it was a zoo, and then it all changed as we ended up in a small chapel. The director abruptly left me there with my colleagues as we knelt to pray for the prisoners -- for their redemption and liberation. A little nun was tending to the chapel. Sister Ana with a smiling face and joyful lilting voice spoke with us about her ministry in prison for the past sixteen years. It wasn't always easy she explained to us, because very often the guards were a bigger problem and a danger to them than the inmates. Then she pointed to a simple drawing on the wall that depicted Jesus in a dinghy prison cell looking out through bars configured in the shape of a cross -- "He loves them all in here, we are all God's broken children." It seemed so incredible, so unlikely for beautiful Sister Ana and two other sisters to be spending their lies in the squalor and misery of an enormous overpopulated and dangerous prison to share hope, bring comfort, and speak good news among difficult and often violent men.

The very next day I went back to visit Sister Ana again, I needed to know more. Late in the afternoon, we met outside the prison gates and walked a short distance down a rock strewn dusty road into a shanty town of squatters that had sprung up around the prison. Most of the people were family members of the men in prison and were very poor. They were hanging on by a mere thread to a meager existence, barely scraping by, living in cardboard huts and little wooden shacks. Yet Sister Ana had chosen to live among them and had a small shanty very much like theirs. Her door was always open to anyone -- wives and mothers, children, and even prisoners who were released.

As we drank tea together and chatted, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the presence of Jesus that she exuded. It struck me so profoundly as we talked, that the downward mobility of Jesus into the muck and misery and madness of humanity brought a hope far more liberating than anything that the "Shining Path" or any violent revolution in history could promise or deliver. The humble gracious way of Jesus brings hope and liberation, not through violence and revolution but through solidarity and love expressed in the depths of human suffering and need and even failure. I realized, possibly for the very first time in my life that God is not only for us, He not only cares for us, but that he comes down and lives in prison with those who are imprisoned.