Pastor Ignacio Chamorro Ramírez’s flock isn’t typical.
“My members are rapists, kidnappers, murderers and fraudsters — all washed by the blood of Jesus our Lord,” he said.
Chamorro directs an integrated transformation program and pastors La Libertad (Freedom) church, a ministry of the Mennonite Brethren church, in Paraguay’s overcrowded Tacumbú national penitentiary.
But he was once a prisoner like the men he serves.
Chamorro’s life is a testament to Holy Spirit transformation.
His youth spent on the streets led to bad decisions. At age 19, Chamorro went to prison for robbery for 20 days.
“It was a traumatic experience but made no change in my life,” he said.
A few years later, Chamorro was imprisoned “for a crime I didn’t commit. I wasn’t charged for the one I did.”
Resentment and bitterness grew in his heart. He rejected any invitation to church.
One day, he went with friend to study math.
“The person leading talked about God, but I had nothing else to do so I stayed,” Chamorro said. “There, God touched my heart. Something new began in my life.”
That was his introduction to La Libertad, a church inside the prison. “I learned about the benefit of discipleship . . . was baptized and began to do for others what they had done for me,” he said.
When he was released, he finished high school, studied theology at Instituto Bíblico Asunción and has worked with La Libertad since 2012.
Members of Mennoniten Brüder Gemeinde Concordia (Concordia Mennonite Brethren Church) began a ministry in the prison in 1984. For more than a decade, the Ministry of Justice has had an agreement with the congregation to manage an area with 535 of the 3,290 inmates in the prison. Some 130 are committed members of the church.
The church-run program in the prison emphasizes spirituality and education. It offers literacy and work skills.
“It provides opportunity to recover dignity, economic freedom and, most important, to grow and develop the person’s life in Christ, and to continue to journey in love,” Chamorro said.
Chamorro shared his story at the triennial meeting of the Global Mission Fellowship and Global Anabaptist Service Network, brought together by Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission in April in Kenya. The prison ministry is a part of GMF member Vereinigung der Mennoniten Brüder Gemeinden Paraguays (Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Paraguay).
“I encourage you to have a church inside a penitentiary,” he said. “It is a great honor.”