Editor’s Note: This is Part I a series called “Visiting Christ the Prisoner: A Look into Prison Ministry in Bolivia”. Read Part II and Part III.

 Jeff shares a story of his time in El Penal de San Sebastián. Home to 800-900 men along with their wives and children, San Sebastián is one of the six prisons that Jeff regularly visits as part of his ministry in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Each of the six prisons are unique, but in each of them inmates govern themselves with an elected system of delegates who oversee various parts of the prison society. The delegates of the work groups, for example, manage the different workshops where inmates work to cover the costs of food and rent for themselves and their families.

 
“Christ of Maryknoll” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Recently, I’ve been helping to coordinate a taller or course with the zapatería in El Penal de San Sebastían, one of the six prisons I visit here in Cochabamba. The taller will consist of two classes for 15 students who are new to the zapatería where one of the more experienced shoe-makers will lead them through the entire process of making a pair of shoes. They have also decided to donate the finished products to the children who live with their parents in the prison.

Along with shoes and sandals, the zapateros make wallets (villateras) and change-purses (monederos), all of which I regularly sell in La Cancha. Through the sales and regular visits to plan the taller, I’ve grown pretty close to many of the 40+ men who work in the zapatería. They have also been extremely patient with me throughout the processes of learning both Spanish and shoe materials.

I can now look at a material list they give me and know not only what they’re asking for, but also where in the market to look for it. This is a huge improvement considering that the first time I was coordinating a taller with them, one of the delegates had to call his wife and ask her to accompany me so that I wouldn’t return with potted plants.

 Monty Python reference: “A shrubbery? You want a shrubbery?”

You’re probably confused about why I would possibly think potted plants were on a material list for a group of shoe-makers. Well, what would you think they meant by seventy plantas?

Planta can be “plants”, which was the only way I had heard it used, but it also means soles of shoes. Soles for shoes made a whole lot of sense, and thanks to helpful guidance from the delegate’s wife, that is what I brought back to them.

My original confusion, however, continues to be a source of fun and laughter, and serves a reminder for how learning a language can also be a central part of building relationships.

It also continues to be a source of humility, which is not surprising. As I’ve seen many times during my life as a missioner, humility plays a huge role in building relationships.

It is times like these where I move past the frustration over my struggles with Spanish, and see with gratitude that the struggle is a gift – a gift that opens the door to continue building new relationships.