This is Rocky’s story. It’s a story of joy and delight, followed by horror and sadness, and then an unfolding of the goodness of God in a way I could not have dreamed.
Imagine crowded buildings, where one can only see cracks of light through the walls and roofs above; of groups of dadhi walas (bearded ones) in long white robes and topis (skull caps), and of women clothed all in black with only their eyes showing; and other women wearing shalwar kameez (baggy pants and tunic), flashing blues, reds, pinks, and all hues as they wander down the street; of roaming goats, scooters, bikes, and carts loaded with vegetables or fruit to sell. And through it all the sounds of running children, honking horns, and echoing calls to prayer reverberating from mosque to mosque. This is where I live, and this is where I first met Rocky and his family a few years ago.
I wish you could meet Rocky, beaming smile, infectious spirit, and an absolute lover of Jesus. He became a follower of Jesus about two and a half years ago (was baptized with a bucket from our bathroom!)… and then, in the grip of mental illness, unresolved trauma triggers, and following a medication switch, committed a terrible murder and went to prison.
It is hard to put into words those dark days — trying to manage the police investigation, helping his grieving and terrified family, and somehow avoiding the journalists flooding the area. I thought his life was over — such a promising young man with his life destroyed. And the one who was murdered — the grief of a life ended too early. Rock’s older brother told his sister, the only girl of the family, to take poison, because surely the family of the victim would seek retribution. Instead, she came and lived with me and my teammates for the rest of the year.
Two weeks before this crime, Rocky sat in my living room, fearing he would hurt someone, having tried to commit suicide. We took him seriously, but with no mental hospitals accessible at that time, we didn’t know where to turn for help. Despite being in South Asia, in a mega city of thirty million, this was a village with family feuds that went back generations. All my training on strategies and church planting, of sharing my faith with others, my training in discipleship, and those seminars in spiritual warfare, none of it quite prepared me for this. Even growing up (as I had) in the Muslim world had not prepared me for this! These were dark and grim days.
But it wasn’t the end of the story. As in the gospel, the story doesn’t end with a life taken, and a life destroyed.
Rocky turned himself in to the police and went to prison. He took full responsibility for what he had done and said he was willing to face whatever punishment was decided, even knowing the death penalty was a possibility. About a month after going to prison, Rocky had a dream where the person he murdered appeared to him and said, “I forgive you.” In that moment he felt God’s forgiveness washing over him. He began meeting with other young men and teaching them what he had learned about Jesus. We were able to smuggle in some Bibles through a Christian NGO that visited the prisons. Eventually, my teammates were able to visit him; he would mention the scriptures every time, hungry for the Word of God. He was granted access to the music room in the prison where he was able to practice piano and guitar.
Somehow this prison, where he struggles to get enough food to eat and faces constant threats of violence, has become a better place for him than where he grew up. It has given him opportunities and a place to mature in the Lord. He continues to lead a group of young men that numbers seventy and continues to grow.
I have never met someone who devoured the Word with more hunger. Before we left the country this past winter, he smuggled a gift out of prison for all of us: a beautiful letter thanking us for our love and sending us his love, his copybook filled with handwritten scripture.
I share this story not to prescribe a way to do ministry. In fact, what strikes me again and again is the messiness of it all — all the mistakes. But, in spite of the craziness, all the sin and brokenness, I see God’s grace all over Rocky’s story. May that divine grace and glory and love continue to pour out over Rocky and the many others we all may come alongside.
In the words of Paul, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
A year ago, the prison had a huge gathering when a famous Bollywood star came to visit; the top warden asked Rocky to sing to an assembly of thousands of prisoners, the Bollywood guest, and the leaders of the prison. Rocky stood in front of them and sang, in English, one of his very favorite songs: the Christian song by MercyMe, “I Can Only Imagine,” along with some other worship songs in Urdu. How powerful it is, to know these songs were sung out to Jesus in front of thousands of prisoners.
Written by an EPC WO global worker