We sat under the thatched roof where inmates from Bilibid’s Minimum Penitentiary and representatives from the catalyst movement of transformation in Las Pinas, Muntinlupa, and Paranaque (LaMPara) gathered together monthly to encourage each other and worship God. The bahay kubo was outside the gates of the prison, situated right in the middle of a lagoon where a walkway made of rubber tires and concrete led to this bamboo sanctuary. The kubo was sturdy enough to hold approximately twenty-five of us.
We began by saying “hello!” and exchanging pleasantries. As we waited for other pastors and inmates to arrive, worship began very simply. One of the inmates picked up a guitar and led us.
“Kaybuti ng Diyos sa atin,” sang the brown-shirted inmate.
“Kay sarap maging Kristiano!” sang another.
“Ang galling, galing ng ating Diyos,” was another song sung in unison.
One of the inmates spoke, “Kahit nakakulong kami, nagpapasalamat kami sa Diyos.”
Pastor Roy Carandang led the exhortation. We listened as he shared insights on the story of Peter. The mighty apostle had been captured, and the Church was praying for his release. In the middle of the night, an angel suddenly appeared to Peter in prison, releasing him (Acts 12). Peter literally walked out of jail and went to the house of the praying Christians. When he knocked at the gate, he was greeted with astonishment and initial disbelief. Peter, too, could hardly believe it. But there he was: liberated miraculously.
Pastor Roy posed a very good question to us as we reflected on the story: “Sino nga ba nakakulong?” he asked. “Sino ang malaya? Faith is being sure of things to come.”
When God moves in a place like Bilibid Prison, do we as a church stand in disbelief?
The New Bilibid Prison is clearly the nation’s repository for all the abandoned and rejects of society. The inmates are incarcerated because of heinous crimes, but the fact remains that they, like orphans, are in need of a father’s love. Many are fathers themselves who missed their prime years with their wives and children. Many are forgotten by their own fathers; their own families. These inmates are in need of the kind of love that can forgive and never fail—our Heavenly Father’s love. They need to know the assurance of the promise of Jesus found in John 14:18, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans–I will come to you.”
When our time of encouraging each other ended, two of us from One Voice Magazine stayed to record some stories of the inmates. A number of these inmates had been inside their cells for years, with sentences of Reclusion Perpetua or life sentences pronounced upon them. Yet those who were with us in the bahay kubo resonated with a truth manifesting in their lives, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Inmate Story 1: Manolo (name changed)
Manolo is a heavy-set man, dark from the sun but with a light demeanor. He once lived in Pampanga where he raised a family. He tried his best to provide for them, but did so in both legal and illegal ways. He saw himself as maka-pera, mabagay-bagay (materialistic). He became worldly and proud. He gambled, too. One day, an alleged political move occurred, and he was found guilty for drug trafficking. For two years, he was at a provincial jail. He says of this: “Kahit naka-preso, mayabang pa rin ako. For two years, mayabang pa rin.”
While there, inmates attempted a mass escape and he was a part of it. The escape failed. Authorities caught the prisoners, and discipline was enforced. Physical correction weakened the body of the inmate, but it made him desperate for something he knew was amiss in his life. It was during this time that the inmate got hold of a Bible. A foreign missionary from a Bible Institute was doing Bible studies right outside the prison cells. The inmate decided to join one study. It was upon reading the Bible that he realized that God could change him. He read Isaiah 1:18, which says, “Magsiparito kayo ngayon, at tayo’y magkatuwiranan, sabi ng Panginoon: bagaman ang inyong mga kasalanan ay maging tila mapula, ay magiging mapuputi na parang niebe; bagaman maging mapulang gaya ng matingkad na pula, ay magiging parang balahibo ng bagong paligong tupa.” He also read in 1 Timothy 6:10, “Sapagka’t ang pagibig sa salapi ay ugat ng lahat ng uri ng kasamaan; na sa pagnanasa ng iba ay nangasinsay sa pananampalataya, at tinuhog ang kanilang sarili ng maraming mga kalumbayan.” It was this latter verse that flew like a bullet to shatter his old mindset of greed.
From a provincial prison, Manalo was transferred to a regional prison, then to the Maximum Prison of Bilibid to serve his sentence of Reclusion Perpetua, or life imprisonment. While in Bilibid, he studied his Bible and found his own character transforming. Manalo held on to verses like Phil. 4:6 and Jeremiah 29:11, which say: Huwag kayong mangabalisa sa anomang bagay; kundi sa lahat ng mga bagay sa pamamagitan ng panalangin at daing na may pagpapasalamat ay ipakilala ninyo ang inyong mga kahilingan sa Dios” and “Sapagkat batid kong lubos ang mga plano ko para sa inyo; mga planong hindi ninyo ikakasama kundi para sa inyong ikabubuti. Ito’y mga planong magdudulot sa inyo ng kinabukasang punung-puno ng pag-asa.” These two verses gave him hope.
Now Manolo says, “Ngayon, kung wala na ang pera, masaya pa rin ako. Si God ay nagpupuno sa akin. Kung walang Diyos, lahat wala. Kung meron ang Diyos, kahit yung wala natin ay meron pa rin sa Kanya.”
After a time of good behavior and studying, Manolo was transferred to Bilibid’s Medium Security Prison, and then finally to Minimum Security Prison. He is praying for a miracle–a time when finally, he steps out the prison gates as a free man.
Manolo recounts an incredible moment in 2017. He suddenly had a stroke and found himself paralyzed. He couldn’t speak. He started to salivate and couldn’t stop. He prayed to God and asked His heavenly Father to heal him. In fact, Manolo promised God this: if God would preserve his life and heal him, then upon his release, Manolo would visit prisoners incarcerated in other jails so that he could share the Gospel to them. Manolo received instant healing. “Gusto ko maging misyonaryo. Gusto kong kausapin ang mga youth sa prison.” Truly, even with a sentence of Reclusion Perpetua, freedom is embraced by this man; believed by this man.
Even while inside Bilibid, Manolo took a basic ministerial course and a diploma course in Theology. He has also studied an automotive course while in prison.
Indeed, prison cells cannot hold a man whose spirit is free.
Inmate Story 2: Jonathan (name changed)
Jonathan says, “Simple lang gumawa ng kasalanan: inom, away, barkadahan, sugal.” It started with that, but he is now inside Bilibid because of conspiracy to commit murder. Jonathan received two sentences of Reclusion Perpetua and was sent to Maximum Prison in 1999.
Jonathan explains that while in prison, one has to learn how to survive. There are different gangs, and if an inmate is without a gang, he would most likely get killed. Therefore, Jonathan became part of a gang, rising as the escort of a gang leader or a “mayor” in prison.
It just so happened that the mayor whom Jonathan “worked for” was a Born Again Christian. As the mayor went to Bible studies in prison, Jonathan would accompany him. This allowed Jonathan to hear messages of the Lord that struck his heart. Finally, one day, he himself went forward in response to an altar call.
Jonathan learned to read the Bible. He would see people in the Bible studies read their Bibles, and he was inspired by that. He eventually took up a diploma course in Theology. Then, he decided to take the degree, Bachelor in Theology, in Bilibid. He was eventually ordained as a pastor.
Describing how his life was before, Jonathan says, “Buhay ko noon? Walang direksyon. Ngayon, meron kahalaga.”
Jonathan admits that he was once an irresponsible father. But being a Christian behind bars, he has resolved to be different. He managed to send his children to college by selling inasal na manok inside the prison.
Jonathan says God’s Word gives him hope. If once he was on death row, he now has hope. He says, “Si Jesus lamang ay may kapangyarihan para baguhin ang buhay ng inmate.” Now, Jonathan loves to share the Word of God. He prays every night and says of his desires, “Gumawa ng mabuti sa kapwa.”
Inmate Story 3: Pedro (name changed)
Pedro comes from a broken family.
At ten years old, he was sent to live with relatives. Like any normal child growing up, he looked for guidance and longed for love. He eventually married and decided to enter the military.
However, after five years of service, he decided to resign so he could be with his family. His wife had asthma, and he wanted to take care of her. To his dismay, he discovered that she was taking drugs. He was angry at first, but eventually, found himself taking them, too.
Pedro was soon embroiled in a murder case. He was sentenced to Reclusion Perpetua. He couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. In the restlessness of his being, Pedro decided to search. Who was God? Did God care?
Because there were ministers reaching out to the inmates, Pedro found himself listening to them and being part of religious group activities. He joined Bible studies and outreaches to fellow inmates. He started to believe in the reality of God and the Bible. In the year 2000, Pedro was baptized as a Born Again Christian.
To deepen his understanding of the Bible, Pedro took up a diploma course in theology. Then, he decided to take the course, Bachelor’s Degree in Theology. He didn’t finish his bachelor’s degree but was ordained as a pastor, just the same.
Inside Bilibid’s Maximum Security Prison, Pedro made himself active in one of the churches. As God had made him whole by being His father, Pedro desired to see others made whole. Now, every Friday, Pedro holds Bible studies with 13 different prison gangs.
In his 26 years at Bilibid Prison, Pedro says, “God will not leave me. Kahit malayo ang pamilya, may lakas, kapayapaan sa Dios.” It is necessary to Pedro that he prays to God once he wakes up. For him, a day must always begin with God.
Listening to the stories of these three inmates was truly a privilege. When it was time for One Voice Magazine and the LaMPara pastors to leave, I could not help but reflect on everything I had heard and seen. People may be locked up inside a penitentiary but still experience a freedom and a love for the Lord and for others. Also, metal bars do not stop God from reaching out to hearts that are desperate to know Him.
God certainly has not forgotten Bilibid. God certainly does not disqualify inmates from knowing what true freedom is in Jesus. Do we as a Church stand in belief that God can change the hardest of hearts? Can we show the Father’s love to them? Can we love them?
“May plano ang Dios sa aking buhay,” smiled an inmate.
Yes, Kuya, He certainly does. And with this last parting word, we can embrace hope for the precious souls inside Bilibid.
Janina Marie Rivera is the author of the book, A Night Bird Sings of Blindness and Fear and has co-authored the devotional, Dawns, published by OMF Literature. She is a contributing poet in the books Joyful Light and Whitmanthology: on Loss and Grief by Various Authors. She is the Editor-in-Chief of One Voice Magazine.