Out of the Belly of Hell by Sanders Thornburgh

Out of the Belly of Hell

The day we were all praying for finally came! After 15 months of age-lasting suffering, my dear friend, Leo Pineda, was at last released from detention. I was so privileged to be there to walk with him those first steps of freedom as we exited Stewart Detention Center together. I couldn’t stop looking into his radiant face as he smiled at the open blue sky, soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. If bliss could be captured with metaphor – he was an ever-opening flower bursting forth in the pollen-love explosion of redeeming grace. Praise God!
Yet, there was much horrid affliction before this day of deliverance. Like Jonah in the “belly of hell”, Leo was swallowed up into the depths of hopelessness. So many times, his hopes were dashed against the cinder-block walls of that private, for-profit pit of exploitation in Lumpkin Georgia. Fifteen months is a long time to be locked up in detention. It is an “aionian (age-abiding) experience” that can seem like forever. Jonah described his decent into hell as “forever” – a qualitative event which in actuality lasted 3 days. When three days or fifteen months gets absorbed into God’s timelessness, that which seemed eternally hopeless becomes infused with redemptive meaning.

I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” – Jonah 2:2

I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me forever: yet has thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.”
– Jonah 2:6

Miraculously, through it all, Leo kept his faith. In fact, the longer he was there, the more his faith grew. Leo cried unto the Lord, and the Lord heard his voice. Now, Stewart Detention Center is by no means a transformative place, but through God’s mercy we have a transformative Savior who can turn a bad situation up-side down & spiritually renovate a prison into a temple; a belly of hell into a womb of worship. Before Leo went into detention, he tells me that he was a poor reader with little desire to pick up a book. While in detention, Leo read the entire New Testament, half of the Book of Mormon and a book called “The Power of a Praying Wife”. All of these books, he says, were tools that God was giving him to help him to be a better husband and father for the day which he knew would come when he would be reunited with his beloved family. While inside, he also found a small group of Christians where he found fellowship – Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals. God was there with him, every step of the way.
Before picking Leo up in Lumpkin, I had discovered that by the time he was released, the next available bus to West Virginia would not be until 5:30 pm the next day. So, I decided to host Leo at El Refugio until his Greyhound departure. At the house, the first thing Leo did was to call his wife Shanna and speak with her and their two young girls for longer than he had in well over a year. We ate a modest meal together consisting of left-over food from the fridge, followed by hours of delightful companionship. Leo was enthusiastic to share with me many highlighted scriptures which he had discovered during his time in prison. After a lengthy Bible study, Leo offered a closing prayer where he poured out his heart in thanksgiving to our Deliverer, over and over again. By the time we went to sleep, much to our surprise, it was 3 am!
In the morning, shortly after waking, the two young Mormon missionaries who had also visited Leo in detention showed up at El Refugio. I had called them the night before and left a voice-mail telling them that Leo was released and invited them to come by the house to have one last visit with him before he boarded the bus. It was so good for us all to fellowship with Leo in the comfortable freedom of El Refugio, without hostile guards, time constraints, thick glass windows and phones with poor audio quality.
Soon, our circle of camaraderie was enlarged to include house leader, P.J. Edwards, and his group of four. P.J.’s group came to the house to meet with two government agents (who would arrive later in the day) from Homeland Security’s civil liberties department, to give them a tour and explain to them the mission of El Refugio. The day just continued to get more and more interesting as it progressed! It was especially good to witness P.J. interact with Leo and then the Mormons. P.J. asked the missionaries if they would be interested in partnering with El Refugio with future work projects or to visit other men in detention now that Leo had been set free. They enthusiastically said they would! I observed at this point that there were now Catholics, Mormons and Mennonites crammed into our engorged living room space, spilling into the hallway. There was no proselytizing at all, just diverse Christians joyfully frolicking in the love of God.
I wondered what would happen when we added two Homeland Security folks into this cocktail of people. Would it be chaos or the Kingdom of Heaven? It turned out to be the latter. When they arrived I listened in as P.J. gave them a tour of the house and a description of the ministry. I soon realized that these two agents seemed to be authentically concerned about human rights and conditions inside Stewart Detention Center.
P.J. introduced everyone in the house, and when he identified Leo as someone who just got released from a lengthy stay in detention, the government agents seemed to perk up with interest. They eventually asked me if I would ask Leo if he would be comfortable getting interviewed by them. Leo said he would gladly share about his experiences, and so all of us moved back into the living room. I was so impressed with the way Leo articulated details about unjust conditions inside Stewart Detention Center with honesty and grace. For example, when Leo expressed his frustrations about the chronic disrespectfulness of the guards, he was quick to point out that there were a few exceptions – a few guards who were kind and compassionate.
I then shared with them my aggravation about how woefully unhelpful the staff is at Stewart Detention Center; they often hardly ever answer the phone, and when they do, nobody there seems to be able to answer the simplest questions. The agents expressed their goals about inspecting detention centers to report on how humane the living conditions are. They asked Leo specific questions about potential mistreatment, healthcare, food quality, legal access, etc. They invited him to share and to call them later to convey more information by phone if he should remember additional particulars.
At the end of it all, I was convinced that the right people with listening ears and genuine hearts had asked the right questions to the right person and heard the blunt truth about the deplorable situations that Leo had endured. While I was driving Leo to the Columbus bus station, he confided in me about how good it felt to air his grievances with people he thought could really make a difference for other guys inside. He said it felt therapeutic and healing to get those things off his chest after so many months of no one from Stewart Detention Center either listening or caring.
My extended time at El Refugio gave me the opportunity to do some theological reflection. A prison is a type of hell, and yet, the Psalmist tells us that even when we make our bed in hell, God is there (Psalm 139:8). I wouldn’t want to make my bed at Stewart Detention Center. When I hear of the loud, over-crowded, narrow bunk-bed situation in there, I know I would find it very hard to sleep in those conditions. Sometimes we make our own beds in the hells of our own making. Sometimes we find ourselves in prison discriminatorily. Sometimes, we voluntarily enter for the sake of those who are imprisoned there. When Christ entered into the timeless state between crucifixion and resurrection, he went and preached the gospel to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19 & 4:6). The redemptive process is not limited to this earth-time. Experientially, hell is the place where God is not. Yet, in Reality, there is no place where God is not.
God is everywhere, even in Stewart Detention Center; even in hell. Christ, in that state of perpetual timelessness, drop-kicks into pieces the gates of Hades, flooding every dark corner of every prison cell with the divine light of His presence. He is perpetually flooding every sub-atomic particle of spirit-prison with the good-news gospel of God’s love. He is perpetually liberating us from the hells of our own creation. Leo had no desire to spend another second in that abusive prison in Lumpkin and every desire to get out of there and back with his family. And yet, when Leo discovered that God was indeed inside there with him, that place had ceased to be a hell for him. Inside, he discovered a deep love for scripture, friendship with other Christians and that divine communion with the One True Companion who never leaves us. Ultimately …God is realized by all as the ALL in ALL.

“God will seek us – how long? Until He finds us. And when He’s found the last little shriveling rebellious soul and has depopulated hell, then death will be swallowed up in victory, and Christ will turn over all things to the Father that He may be all and in all. Then every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
– Clarence Jordan

When we arrived at the bus station, I went in to help Leo get his ticket. As we were standing in line, I realized how much I would miss my visitations with Leo and yet how overjoyed I was that he was leaving Georgia, and moving back into the loving embrace of his family in West Virginia. When back in W.V., the Pineda family would be attending the same LDS (Mormon) church that my parents and extended Thornburgh Clan go to. For so many reasons, I knew that our paths would most likely cross again. As we said our good-byes, we agreed to meet together again sometime soon on my parent’s farm in West Virginia for a fire-side & barbeque. As I hugged Leo good-bye, I noticed a large Hispanic man coming over toward us. The man asked us, “Hey, by any chance, do either of you know where a place called Stewart Detention Center is? I’m supposed to be picking up my nephew, who is being released today, but when I call the detention center, no one there will even pick up the phone!” Before giving the man some guidance, Leo and I couldn’t help but to glance at each other with huge grins on our faces.

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