By Chris Cunningham
Local Outreach Coordinator
The Fiji Elvis
“Inside the walls of prison
My body may be
But the Lord
Has set my soul free…”
(“Greystone Chapel,” written by Glen Sherley, performed by Johnny Cash)
In a previous post, I discussed how we spent part of our mission trip in Fiji at Lautoka Corrections. During this time, we were given the opportunity to lead a small group each day. In the small group, we’d pick a Bible story and talk about it. My group was made up of mostly older Fijian men who were waiting to be sentenced for minor crimes.
But, two younger men joined our group early on. Both had just barely touched adulthood, and both had been arrested for their first time.
A bald head with sprouting stubble and a smile so big his nostrils flared every time he laughed –this was Aquila. He’d been arrested a few days before we arrived for smoking pot with some friends at a night club.
When our first small group ended, he weaved his way through the men to ask me my age.
“Twenty-five,” I said.
“Oh, okay. You know Wiz Khalifa?”
English is a second language to most Fijians, but in the prison the men communicated primarily in Fijian. Hearing Aquila ask about Wiz Khalifa in his native accent caused a smile to burst across my face.
“Yeah, I know Wiz Khalifa.”
And then there was Elvis.
While the group talked, I couldn’t help but stare at him. The youthfulness seemed to have been torn from his eyes. He was only a few years older than Aquila, but it was clear that out of the two, his eyes had seen the type of loneliness that a person can’t keep hidden.
At first, Elvis kept mostly to himself, letting as few words as possible slip during conversations. After group one day, I decided I’d ask Elvis a little more about himself.
I came to find out that Elvis had been arrested for stealing the equivalent of $2.50 American currency to buy food for his girlfriend and him. The two had been living on the streets after being kicked out of their families’ homes for choosing to date. Her family was Christian and Fijian; his was Hindu and Indian.
Fiji and India were both British colonies at one time before gaining independence in the mid-twentieth century. Shortly after, large groups of Indians moved to Fiji to build a new life and, as a result, Indians began occupying jobs that were once filled solely by Fijians.
Fiji is a primarily Christian country; India primarily Hindu. Need I go on?
Divided by Hatred
Hatred, racism, division, separation. It’s strange how you can fly over an entire ocean and still not escape these things.
Hearing his story, I began to understand why Elvis had become so closed off to the world. His eyes, his face and his body language, all wore the scars that abandonment deals out.
As the days went on, Elvis and I started to build this rhythm, an unspoken agreement of sorts. Every day after small group, Elvis would quietly shuffle towards me, hand out, anticipating my handshake.
And every day, he’d open up a little more.
We’d talk about other prisoners, rugby, his girlfriend, his goals, his plans and what he hoped to be when he got out of prison. Most of all, we’d talk about family. His, mine and all of the walls that kept us from experiencing wholeness.
United by Love
One morning, as I bent down to take off my shoes, I heard a voice calling my name from behind the group of prisoners who usually waited for us at the gate. Breaking through the wall of men was Elvis, hand extended out, my lifeline, waiting to pull me in.
This day was different than the others. The eyes that held so much fear, so much loneliness, now shined the way grandparents’ eyes do as they talk about the past.
Elvis explained to me that the night before he had a dream. In the dream, the gates of the prison were opened by the voice of God, leading him out, back to his family. After he was reunited with his family, he saw himself married, celebrating. No division, no walls. No Fijian versus Indian. No Christian versus Hindu.
“I believe God brought me to you,” Elvis told me through tears. “This dream will be true, I know it.” He paused for a minute and smiled with the confidence of a child, swearing he could fly. “I know I won’t be here, in this place, much longer.”
At the end of that day we stood together, Fijians, Indians, Americans, Hindus and Christians.
And, we sang.
“Isn’t the love of God so very wonderful,
Isn’t the love of God so very wonderful?
Wonderful his love to me?
So high, you can’t get over it,
So low you can’t go under it,
So wide you can’t get around it,
Wonderful his love to me!”
Love, redemption, resurrection, family, hope. Humans standing together with voices strong enough to break down all the walls that divide us.
Funny, isn’t it, how you can fly over an entire ocean and still find these things?
Grand Canyon University offers international mission trip opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Learn more about GCU and your educational opportunities by contacting us today.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.