What happens when two incarcerated friends take a risk to change their prison yard?
When Raul Escariz arrived at Okeechobee Correctional Institution in Florida in 2001, he wasn't looking for friends. He was there to serve an eight-year sentence for insurance fraud and theft. It was hard to imagine any purpose in a life behind bars than to just do his time and get home.
But then Raul met Lazaro Lopez, a man serving time for kidnapping, armed robbery, and assault. Raul was immediately struck by Lazaro's humility and love.
"I had never thought there could be people like him in prison," Raul says. "Lazaro is a really friendly guy, a kindred spirit who knows what he stands for. We soon felt as though we had known each other our whole lives."
The two men shared a common background—both were from Cuba, though Raul had immigrated as a young adult and Lazaro had come as a baby. They both had wives and two children waiting for them at home. And they both loved the Lord.
While Raul was new in his faith, Lazaro was an established leader within the prison’s Christian community. A faithful participant in events held by Prison Fellowship® volunteers, Lazaro also was active in the yard church, a ministry organized entirely by prisoners.
The two prisoners became friends. Lazaro discipled Raul, helping him understand how to walk with God in prison. And they would both remind each other of their identities in Christ.
"I would say to him, 'Whatever mistakes you've made, whatever you've done in the past, that's not who you are now,'" Raul says. "And he would tell me, 'Neither are you.'"
But God had much more in store for them than mutual encouragement.
CHURCH ON THE YARD
Raul joined the yard church. Three months after his arrival, the church's co-pastors were transferred to another facility. Raul and Lazaro were voted leaders of the Spanish-speaking church.
Corrections officers told Raul and Lazaro that they could congregate in the pavilion. Raul and Lazaro knew what typically happened there—drug sales and use, and the distribution of pornography. At first, the situation was dicey as they competed for space. But after a month, other prisoners started showing deference to Raul’s and Lazaro’s dogged commitment by either participating in the yard church services—or leaving.
And after four months, no one came to the pavilion on Sunday mornings except those gathering for worship.
Lazaro and Raul lived in different dorms at Okeechobee. When Lazaro's cellmate was transferred, the friends requested Raul be moved to Lazaro's cell so they could plan church together. Their request was granted.
They shared a cell for over year, praying together every night—often holding hands, despite the ribbing they received from guards.
Lazaro preached, and Raul served as his right-hand man. Raul wiped down the benches and swept the floor in the pavilion. He set up Lazaro's pulpit, a garbage can turned upside down. And he used his reputation to draw in unlikely congregants.
Before prison, Raul had been a bodyguard, and he looked the part. He had worked for Hispanic celebrities, and his photographs backed up his stories. That, Lazaro says, opened doors.
"He would go into where [there was] domino playing, where [there was] spades playing," Lazaro recalls. "And with his personality and his charisma, he would attract people to come to church. That was his gift."
Raul's demeanor didn't match his imposing appearance, Lazaro says. The way he related to others often surprised people.
"He had this way," Lazaro says. "Even though his English wasn't perfect, the Spirit of God was within him. He would speak with authority, without offense. He was a strong figure, an authoritative figure. But at the same time, you could see the love of God in him."
TEARING DOWN WALLS OF DIVISION
Eventually, both men were transferred to Glades Correctional Institution in Florida. Their reputations as Christians preceded them, and they were immediately invited to be part of the Spanish yard ministry. Another church, made up primarily of Black men, met after them. Although there was a language barrier, the two churches often worshipped together, singing the same songs in both Spanish and English.
One Sunday, Raul and Lazaro decided to wash the feet of the Black pastors in a display of racial reconciliation. The four men exchanged photographs of their families, promising to uphold one another's loved ones in prayer and vowing to protect one another. In a place like prison where racial divisions are the norm, this was radical.
And then the Holy Spirit moved their congregants to do the same.
"It was just us four," Lazaro remembers, "but then it just got out of hand. The congregation starts washing each other's feet—everybody! All the Hispanics, the Blacks, the whites. People around the yard were trying to figure it out."
Many of the men wept as long-standing barriers fell.
"It was an unforgettable experience," says Raul. "People were released from things in a way that I have not seen in other churches on the outside."
REUNITED TO SERVE
Lazaro's prison sentence ended a year before Raul's did.
"My departure was pretty sad, believe it or not," says Lazaro.
But the two men promised one another that they would continue in ministry together on the outside—and that one day, they would return to prison and minister there as well.
When Raul was released, he and Lazaro attended church together in the Miami area and were even ordained on the same Sunday. Lazaro continued to minister in prisons; however, Raul's 10-year probation prohibited him from returning to prison as a volunteer.
In the meantime, Raul sought work: first, at a car dealership, and then as a control room operator at a Christian radio station. His commanding voice eventually landed him two satellite radio programs of his own. Radio gave Raul a way to connect with those behind bars. His uplifting programs were broadcast into jails and prisons.
A PROPHECY FULFILLED
Later, Lazaro joined Prison Fellowship full-time. As a field director for southern Florida, he oversees many Hope Events, which introduce incarcerated men and women to the Gospel through inspirational speakers and musicians.
And now that Raul's probation is complete, he joins Lazaro in prisons and shares his testimony.
Recently, the two men returned to Okeechobee Correctional Institution for a Prison Fellowship Hope Event™.
"When Lazaro and I walked around the perimeter fence there at Okeechobee, we saw the bars, we saw the dormitories, we saw the guys coming out," Raul says. "We embraced, and we started to cry like young children. We couldn't even speak because of the emotion and how great it was to be there bringing the Good News to people who are now where we once were."
The men held hands when they spoke at Okeechobee, recalling how they had clasped hands in prayer in their cell so many years before. Now, as they look to the future, they envision many more days of serving together.
"What we are experiencing today is a prophecy fulfilled, a prayer answered, and a dream made reality," Raul says. "[It is] the best thing that could ever happen to us!"
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