by Levi Keidel
Meetings in the Shadow of Death
About the same time I lost my father, during my seventh year in prison, we watched another person die of sorrow. The burden of Kimbangu to be released began to overwhelm him. All day long, day after day, he would walk from one prison wall to the other, and back again. Then he began fasting. When numerous plates of food accumulated, they would punish him. He would not change his mind. They locked him into his cell. His body began to waste away.
Once in awhile, when a prisoner died in the cell of torment, guards would carry the corpse past the cell of Kimbangu. At this time Kimbangu would stand, begin to breathe heavily, and tremble over his whole body, as if in a trance.
“I feel great power wants to break out through me, but there is nothing I can do about it,” he would say when we asked him why he acted this way. “If they carry my corpse from this place, I'll rise up from the dead to do the work of God.” Bit by bit, his body weakened. Then he began passing most of his time lying quietly on his cement platform, as though ill.
One morning when we were getting up, word came that during the night Kimbangu had died. Soldier guards and a few prisoners took him outside and buried him. Because he had said he would rise from the dead, soldiers guarded his grave day and night. Finally, when they came back to prison, they said, “Kimbangu was mistaken; we watched his grave a whole week; nothing happened.”
The death of Kimbangu shook my insides. His sentence and mine were the same. Is this the way my life would end?
I had never known a man who walked with God like Kimbangu had. If he, good as he was, died in prison, how could I ever be released? I had counted him to be an extremely valuable person. By his kindness to those who persecuted him; by his sharing his bit of meat with everybody; he was the first to show me that I must love my neighbor as myself. What other person was left to show us by his words and deeds, the love and goodness of God? His teaching had strengthened all of us. Without him, the poison in men's hearts would be left to grow unhindered; and I as foreman, could expect trouble.
One day I was in the storehouse, looking for some things which were lost. I came upon an old Bible. It was Kimbangu's. On many many of its pages, lines were drawn under words; and notes were written alongside them. I also found others books of his: a New Testament; a small book of Romans; and a notebook full of sermons and study thoughts written in his handwriting. During his early years in prison, they had let him use these things. Then a new director came; he took the books away from him, and locked him in his cell. Kimbangu never saw his books again. I took them into the director's office. “I found these things in the storehouse.”
The director took the books, looked through them a bit, and said, “Gather all those things together and burn them.”
I obeyed. The director did not know it; but there was another Bible in prison which was not being burned. Its teaching would not die. I did not feel sufficient to walk in the footsteps of Kimbangu. But God was already doing amazing things in my life; I had a great debt to Him. I saw what the teaching of His word did for the prisoners. As their foreman, I was indebted to them. It was up to me to see that, though Kimbangu was dead, the teaching of God's Word among them was not ending. If I never had the opportunity to work for God as a free man, I should not waste the opportunity to work for Him while in prison. The time had come for me to clean up my life of all its sins, and to declare openly to the prisoners what I believed. It already had been decreed anyhow that I was to die here; what did it matter if I died sooner because I was working for God and helping my neighbors?
Because of my hunger to know the Bible and to see it do its work in my life, my heart was open before God. He had been able to drive out of me the demons of anger, liquor and harlotry. But I was still a bond-slave to tobacco.
Upon getting up in the morning, it was my custom to light one cigarette and to not stop until I had smoked ten. When awaking in the middle of the night, my hand had learned to reach out and hunt for my tobacco without my mind telling it to. I now saw that continuing this habit made me like the parrot who talks like something he isn't. I did not need this habit any more. The time had come for me to affirm my liberation from its slavery.
One evening the prisoners were eating. I moved among the cement tables and quietly told them that when they had finished eating, I wanted to meet them in my sleeping room. I went and waited for them . Slowly the room filled, all their faces showing question marks. A few soldier guards had come to watch me. I spoke.
“Comrades, a loin cloth cannot fail to come to know its loins. We live here together; we cannot fail to know each other. You remember me as I was. You see me now. You wonder what has happened to me. I have come to know the Son of Mvidi Mukulu. He is the One who has turned my life around. He is my Lord. To prove His power, I swear before you that I am quitting smoking, liquor, and harlotry as of this day.
“I am not alone in knowing the Son of Mvidi Mukulu; others among you have known Him too. The prison director sees our quietness and thinks that all is soft as a cat's paw. He doesn't know that among us are hidden the claws of deceit and treachery. Why do we keep pursuing such a path? What good thing do we hope to find at its end? Who keeps telling you that it is good to snuff out your light with wickedness, or to keep hiding it under a box?
“Why don't we clean up affairs among us? I beg all of you who have Mvidi Mukulu in your hearts to declare it from your mouths and to stand with me. Let's begin together. I am foreman of the prison. No one is going to suffer more than I. If it means dying, let's die together. I am forcing no one. You have mouths with which to talk, and I have ears to listen. Do what you think is right.”
The men left slowly. They didn't move their tongues...only their feet. Three men remained near me; my two friends who were secretly reading their parts of the Bible, and a new person.
“We too know this affair,” they said. “As you say, we should stick to it. If it means death, let's all die.”
“If your words are true,” I replied, “meet me here after supper tomorrow evening. On a piece of scrap paper, write a verse from the Bible, or a song you remember; bring your papers, and we'll teach one another.”
Thus we began meeting every day. We began with great courage, not knowing what might happen. We memorized songs and dug treasure from our verses to the limit of our wisdom. This was something strange and new. It had never happened in this prison before.
As time passed, many others were attracted. Some were curious; they came as dogs to sniff the air. Others by one and two, took the vow of death upon themselves and joined us with all their hearts. After a time, those who loved singing formed a choir. We would choose one person to stand and teach.
When meeting in the evenings, we trusted that other prison noises would cover the sound of our singing. When we met at night, we prayed that God would put those over us into strong sleep so they would not come and find us. Soldier guards knew what we were doing; but because I'd been with them a long time, they ignored me. They were saying, “If that condemned man finds a bit of pleasure this way, what does it matter?” Thus we met day after day, no one coming to trouble us.
The prison director did not understand why, but he saw that his prisoners were more content. Fighting was less; shouting in anger was less; whipping with the mfimbu was less. Instead of tying their hearts to do one another evil, men began to see themselves together as sharers of the same suffering. These things made the director happy. He commended me for my work.
One day three men came to see me. They hunted hard for words to speak, as a pregnant woman in pain, who cannot give birth.
“You keep saying that we should clean things up between one another.”
One was looking at his bare feet; another was fidgeting with his belt; the lips of the third were hunting for words.
“Didn't the forefathers say, 'Tie your sicknesses to your heart and they will kill you'? Our hearts have carried a sickness for many days. We must get rid of it before it kills us.”
“There is still time,” I said to help them. “When your spirit enters the realm of the ghosts, there is no calling for a mediator. What sickness?”
“You do not know it. Once we offended you terribly. But now we see that it is foolish for goats to offend one another when they all have buck teeth. We have come to make things right.”
“Well...in what way was it that you offended me?”
“It happened long ago at Kolwezi, at the time they first caught you.”
“You killed a soldier that day.”
“Then they brought you into prison; they bound you into a bundle and put you into the torment cell.”
“We did wickedly that day,” another said. “We were animals. Why did we want to increase your torment?” He shook his head in wonderment.
“What did you do?”
“You remember the anger of the soldiers and of the women. They gathered together their wisdom. They knew you were thirsty. They arranged something for you to drink.”
Another picked up his words. “There is only one reason why we accepted to give it to you. We hoped that in helping torment you, the soldier guards might be more merciful to us.”
“What was it that you gave me to drink?”
My words turned their faces to the ground.
“Do not fear to tell me. Jesus has taken from me my fangs of vengeance. Old affairs are past.”
After a pause, one of them breathed deeply and said, “Women had washed their menstrual cloths in a bucket; that is what they put into the cup.“”
Almost seven years had passed since then. I marvelled. Why had God protected my life through all these things, and brought me all the way to this day? In spite of all my wickedness, He had forgiven me. He had given back to me the pride and joy of being a person of value. Now the love He had given me for others was making them straighten out matters in their lives. I was still a young man. Did God have nothing else on earth for me to do but to stay here forever? Did He not have power to open these prison doors and liberate me?I began to pray hard that God would set me free. I came to loathe my imprisonment. At a meeting one night I announced to the Christians, “I am fed up with my bondage. Tomorrow I am fasting. I want to ask God the question, 'Are you going to liberate me or not?' I want His answer.”
Some said, “Let God do as He wills; if He wants to do such an amazing thing for you, what can we say?”
Others said, “Remember Kimbangu? God never left him out. Is Maweja more worthy than he? Such a thing won't ever happen.”
The next day I ate nothing. Night came. I went to bed. Sleep fled from me. At one o'clock in the morning I arranged my blanket curtain. I took inside with me three candles and my part of the Bible. I began reading. I kept searching for God's answer with weeping until all three candles were finished. Only these words seemed to catch my mind: “As an antelope pants hunting a stream of water, so my heart pants to see God. My heart is thirsty...thirsty for the living God. When will I appear before God? Tears have become my food day and night. I will ask God my Rock, 'Have you abandoned me?'” (Psalm 42:1-3).
I stopped and stood my mind on that verse, asking this question times without counting: “My God, my God, have you really abandoned me?” I cried over these words until morning.
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