As Brazilian jail cells go this one wasn’t too bad. There was a fan on the table. The twin beds each had a thin mattress and a pillow. There was a toilet and a sink.
No, it wasn’t too bad. But, then again, I didn’t have to stay.
Anibal did. He was there to stay.
Even more striking than his name (pronounced “uh-nee-ball”) was the man himself. The tattooed anchor on his forearm symbolized his personality—cast-iron. His broad chest stretched his shirt. The slightest movement of his arm bulged his biceps. His face was as leathery in texture as it was in color. His glare could blister a foe. His smile was an explosion of white teeth.
But today the glare was gone and the smile was forced. Anibal wasn’t on the street where he was the boss; he was in a jail where he was the prisoner.
He’d killed a man—a “neighborhood punk,” as Anibal called him, a restless teenager who sold marijuana to the kids on the street and made a nuisance of himself with his mouth. One night the drug dealer had used his mouth one time too many and Anibal had decided to silence it. He’d left the crowded bar where the two of them had been arguing, gone home, taken a pistol out of a drawer, and walked back to the bar. Anibal had entered and called the boy’s name. The drug dealer had turned around in time to take a bullet in the heart.
Anibal was guilty. Period. His only hope was that the judge would agree that he had done society a favor by getting rid of a neighborhood problem. He would be sentenced within the month.
I came to know Anibal through a Christian friend, Daniel. Anibal had lifted weights at Daniel’s gym. Daniel had given Anibal a Bible and had visited him several times. This time Daniel took me with him to tell Anibal about Jesus.
Our study centered on the cross. We talked about guilt. We talked about forgiveness. The eyes of the murderer softened at the thought that the one who knows him best loves him most. His heart was touched as we discussed heaven, a hope that no executioner could take from him.
But as we began to discuss conversion, Anibal’s face began to harden. The head that had leaned toward me in interest now straightened in caution. Anibal didn’t like my statement that the first step in coming to God is an admission of guilt. He was uneasy with words like “I’ve been wrong” and “forgive me.” Saying “I’m sorry” was out of character for him. He had never backed down before any man, and he wasn’t about to do it now—even if the man were God.
In one final effort to pierce his pride, I asked him, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?”
“Sure,” he grunted.
“Are you ready?”
Earlier he might have boasted yes, but now he’d heard too many verses from the Bible. He knew better.
He stared at the concrete floor for a long time, meditating on the question. For a moment I thought his stony heart was cracking. For a second, it appeared that burly Anibal would for the first time admit his failures.
But I was wrong. The eyes that lifted to meet mine weren’t tear-filled; they were angry. They weren’t the eyes of a repentant prodigal; they were the eyes of an angry prisoner.
“All right,” he shrugged. “I’ll become one of your Christians. But don’t expect me to change the way I live.”
The conditional answer left my mouth bitter. “You don’t draw up the rules,” I told him. “It’s not a contract that you negotiate before you sign. It’s a gift—an undeserved gift! But to receive it, you have to admit that you need it.”
“OK.” He ran his thick fingers through his hair and stood up. “But don’t expect to see me at church on Sundays.”
I sighed. How many knocks in the head does a guy need before he’ll ask for help?
As I watched Anibal pace back and forth in the tiny cell, I realized that his true prison was not made of bricks and mortar, but of pride. He was twice imprisoned. Once because of murder, and once because of stubbornness. Once by his country, and once by himself.