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  • John Tolar

Emmanuel - Christ with Us - Setting the Captives Free

My most memorable Christmas happened over 30 years ago, and it was nothing like you would expect. First, it was not sitting around a tree with family and friends, as it was not at a church or any other Christmas locale. No, it was in a prison. Not only that, but it was the notorious Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, home of the most violent inmates in Texas (and, oddly enough, home of the Prison Rodeo). If that were not memorable enough, I was on Death Row.


Just to be clear, I had been volunteering at a prison ministry that was different than most for a couple of years. Whereas most ministries go into prisons and have services, then meet with inmates in the gym, the ministry we served in did that, AND then we went cell-to-cell with a message of life in Jesus. Once a month or so, around 100 volunteers, and sometimes up to 500 in areas with multiple prison facilities, would pay their way and volunteer their time and money to meet and proclaim liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61). After a couple of years, I joined the ministry full-time, became the bookkeeper, and processed the daily mail. A Christmas special was scheduled, and I was invited to participate in a trip to the Walls Unit with a hand-picked group of 25, with musicians and a pro athlete as a guest speaker. About a week before we went, I was opening the mail and got a very special request.


It was not unusual for us to get requests to visit a family member (whether we were going to that unit or not, or to take a message or other things that were not practical.) This letter was different. A man wrote the letter and envelope in a very palsied hand. The letters were large, words scratched out, and taped to the bottom of the page was a quarter. The request was similar to the ones we usually got. "Could we please go and see his son? He had not heard from him in years, not since he had been sent away. His family had done all they could for him, but he fell in with a bad crowd and took on the path to destruction."


I had been used to getting checks for small amounts, even some larger ones, but rarely cash and never one single coin. This letter got to me, and when I saw he was at the Walls Unit, I promised myself I would go and see this man's son. How hard could he really be with a name like Emmanuel Camp (last name changed)?


The day came, and we went down to Huntsville. Understand that when we entered the gates, we could carry nothing but a small notepad and pen, watch, Bible and tracts, and driver's licenses, which were taken up as we went in. Because this group included veteran prison volunteers, we were allowed quite a bit of freedom to walk around and interact with the inmates. After unloading and setting up the program for 1,000+ inmates, I went about trying to find Emmanuel.


One of the neat things about this trip was the two musicians from Oklahoma who were with us. One was an alto saxophone player, and the other was a guitarist. The guitarist had a battery-operated speaker attached to his electric guitar. He and the saxophonist were permitted to go up and down the rows of floors, take requests, and play songs. As it turned out, they both played Amazing Grace several dozen times, as almost everyone they met requested the old hymn. Throughout the unit, you could hear the strains of that song.


I finally found a guard who could look up Emmanuel, and after repeatedly asking me if I was sure that was who I wanted to see, he directed me to D block. The next two guards reacted the same way, as did the female guard who was letting me go somewhere I never thought I would find myself: Death Row. This block was three stories tall by fifteen cells long. After being asked again if I was sure, I was instructed to be careful, to keep my back to the wall, and to stay all the way back (5 feet) from the bars to be out of reach. As we started down the row, the guard slid a 5-foot-wide plexiglass shield to protect us from having anything thrown on us. First cell blocked off; next, a sleeping man; next, another man reading a magazine; the next one just staring at us; and then Emmanuel. The guard wished me good luck, and she and the plexiglass slid back down the row, leaving me face-to-face with the devil.


Emmanuel Camp sat on the floor of the 6' by 8' cell. He had on a filthy, open, and torn button-up shirt and was in his boxers. He sat yoga-style on the floor with what appeared to be two cups of things that warranted the use of the Plexiglas shield. His hair was long and halfway between dreadlocks and something worse. His body was covered in cuts and prison tattoos. Without looking up, his first words to me were deep, guttural, venomous, "Go away, Man of God, go away!" My first thought was, "Man of God, cool! No one has ever said that to me before." Then he looked up at me. All I could see were the whites of his eyes, but he looked around as if seeing and then snarled at me. "Okay, God," I thought, "This was your idea."


"Merry Christmas, Emmanuel! Your father asked me to come see you and see how you are." Those white eyes seemed to look through me as that same poisonous voice responded to me, "Ain't got no father, ain't got no momma. I created myself from the beginning. I am." All right. Then, I noticed the audience. Three cells to my left, ten to my right, each one with a hand sticking through the bars holding a little metal mirror. I had seen this before, but now it just added to the pressure I was feeling. I continued, "I don't know about that, but your father wanted you to know that he and your mom love you and pray for you every day." Still nothing but the whites of his eyes, but the voice got louder and harder. "I told you I AM! Don't got nobody. Don't need nobody!" I apologize that I don't recall which ones; he started quoting scripture all about the enemy, him. I took another deep breath, "I still don't know about any of that. I just know that Jesus loves you and wants to come back into your life." "Jesus! You don't know nothing about no Jesus. I don't want nothing to do with that…" and that began a few minutes of curses and cursing to my Lord like I had never heard before. As I started to get mad, I suddenly became peaceful and remembered what I was there for. I remembered what Jesus went through and what was said about Him to His face, and I prayed.


I noticed that his hands were inching to the cups on either side of him. When he stopped to take a breath, I said, "You may not hear what I have to say, but there is one thing I can do for you, and that's pray…. In the Name of Jesus, I command you to release this man so that he can hear the words that the Lord has for His child…" At that moment, his eyes rolled down, and I caught a glimpse of brown irises as he froze in place while I prayed. I have no idea what came out of my mouth at this point; it became surreal, and I felt like I was watching myself pray as the Holy Spirit ministered to a poor, tortured soul. I noticed some of the mirrors facing downward as they listened, too. I do know that this prayer contained remembrance, forgiveness, restoration, and healing. As I finished, I caught another glimpse of brown eyes, and Emmanuel bowed his head, and I knew my audience was done. What was in him was silenced, at least for a time. I felt elated and worn out.


I began the walk back, happy nothing had been thrown at me. As I went by the three occupied cells, I made eye contact with each man and wished him a Merry Christmas. What was returned was that manly nod with just a hint of a smile from each one. As I stood in front of the last dark, empty cell, I paused for a prayer, and a moment before I called for the guard to let me off this row, a voice called to me, "Hey, man." I nearly jumped out of my skin! A light in the "empty" cell came on, and a man walked up to me with a smile on his face. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to let you know you done good." Now, this man, whom I'll call Johnson, was pretty much the opposite of Emmanuel. He was clean, well-groomed, spoke clearly, and smiled as he came to the front of his cell. Again, I was on Death Row, and he knew exactly where he was, but at least here was a man hungry for a little company. Without thinking about it, I moved forward, stuck my arm through the bars, and shook his hand. "I don't know about that. I just wanted to show him a little love."


Johnson stood up straight and crossed his arms. "Then you did just that. But when he started cussing Jesus and screaming at you, I was waiting for you to lose it on him like everyone else does. But you didn't. No, sir, you stayed cool and calm. It was amazing." This encounter had just happened, and I have to say, I was unsure whether I could agree with Johnson or not. "Well, let's just say it had much more to do with the Holy Spirit than it did with me." His reply was, "All right, I can see that, I see that. It lines up with what I read in the Bible." I thought, "Thank You, Lord, a Christian." An easy conversation… but no.


Let me take a moment to say that some of the finest Christians I have ever met are living their life out behind bars. Not with "jailhouse religion," but a deeply held love of Christ. They have hit rock bottom, and the only thing they can depend on is Jesus. And on that rock, they stand.


"So you are a Christian?" Johnson reached up on his upper bunk of his cell, where he had several books, and pulled down a well-worn Bible. "Well, sir, I read the Bible, but I have these other books to read in my library to help me." He reached up again and pulled down about five other books, like the Book of Mormon and a Jehovah's Witness bible. A Bhagavad Gita. A Koran, and a Tao Te Chi: A Collection of World Religions. "Oh, Lord, guide me…" was my quick prayer.


"That's a fine collection. I am actually familiar with those (thank you, Josh McDowell's Handbook of Today's Religions). But you know what's the difference between those books and the Bible?" He gave me a look like he'd heard this before: the Word of God vs. the word of men, and so forth. He said, "I think they are all about the same; they all teach a better way and bring me comfort," I shook my head, trying to give myself a moment for revelation. "True, but what is the difference in them?" Johnson was curious now and shook his head. "I dunno."


The Lord did not leave me on the spot; now I was ready. "Each one of those books is the same, but the Holy Bible is different." I was rewarded with a confused, go-on look. "Ever notice how, in each one, the focus is on you? What you can do to earn your way to a better existence? What you can do for yourself through reincarnation and good works or just obedience and works? This is how you prove yourself to the great cosmic, whatever you are deserving of. Almost everything aligns with yours, mine, and everyone's human nature. But the Bible is different." I could see now that Johnson was looking for his identity but looking to religion, not a relationship, a relationship with Jesus. "Start to finish, it agrees with the others that we are not worthy, that we have sinned, but, instead of leaving us in endless frustration of trying to become worthy in this life or a thousand more, we can have life, and life more abundantly, as well as life eternally. Not only that, the Lord God provides a way through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, to have all these things simply by admitting we are sinners who need a savior and by accepting Jesus as that Savior. Even though many religious groups have tried to add rules and regulations, the simplicity of the Gospel is to believe." At that, I got a thoughtful nod. "Our human nature is always to do what is best for us, but Jesus teaches us to 'love one another as we love ourselves'; to 'give sacrificially';' and to 'turn the other cheek and not seek vengeance.'" At that point, he joined in with teaching as he had been reading the Word.


After a few more minutes of this, I asked him, "Don't you think it is time to put those other books away and study the Word of God?" With a nod and a tear, really tears from both of us, we began to pray. A visit to the devil had turned into an opportunity for a different lost person to receive Christ! Not only that, but as I called for the guard and made my way out of D Block, acknowledged with a wink and a smile that he had heard both encounters, I prayed that other lives had also been touched.


As always, God has a way of winking at me. I stood outside the gym and helped greet several hundred white-garbed inmates as they came to Christmas services. A couple of us waited outside to see if anyone else was coming and to speak with some prison officials when I heard them announce the gospel singer, a little 5-foot tall, 90 lb woman named Sarah, who began to belt out:


“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel."


This is my favorite Christmas memory, and every time I hear this carol, I am reminded to pray for Emmanuel, Johnson, three guards, and thirteen other inmates who also met their Savior that day.




[As adapted from The Bondage Breaker and Stomping Out The Darkness by Dr. Neil Anderson and Dr. Dave Park.]

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