Inmate finds friendship, reborn faith through missionary
Maybe a prison courtyard full of people and noise wasn’t the best place for Sonya and Judy to meet.
Then again, maybe Sonya should have known better than to carry a bag given to her by her boyfriend’s buddy onto an airplane. Maybe she shouldn’t have trusted a stranger so easily – but hey, she’d run lots of international errands for her boyfriend. Maybe this guy was OK, too.
Of course, maybe if Sonya hadn’t left her home in Germany at age 14, she wouldn’t have gotten caught up with people ready to take advantage of her. Maybe she wouldn’t have left her home and her faith in God if her mother hadn’t been reading the Bible one minute and beating her in drunken rages the next.
Maybe then she wouldn’t have agreed to carry a double-bottom bag containing 3 kg of cocaine onto a flight from Panama to Costa Rica in July 2007.
But she did. And yes, she got caught. She was tried and convicted of international drug trafficking, and served three years at El Buen Pastor women’s prison near San Jose, Costa Rica.
El Buen Pastor (“The Good Shepherd”) is the only women’s prison in Costa Rica, a country of about 4 million people. Built in a former convent, the prison houses more than 700 inmates, all of whom live in overcrowded rooms like the one that Sonya shared with 23 other women the entire time she was there.
It’s that first day that sticks out, though.
From the jail where Sonya spent the two and a half days after her arrest, she climbed into a steel cage in the back of a truck for the ride to El Buen Pastor. “I felt like a dog,” she remembers. She arrived at 10 a.m, still handcuffed and sick to her stomach from the ride, and waited until 10 that night to get her mattress – a foam mat that proved no match for the hard bed slats underneath.
That 12-hour wait gave her time to think about how she got there — and about the new reality bearing down on her.
“I was scared,” says Sonya, now 28 and living back in Cologne, Germany, near where she grew up. “I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand what people wanted from me, what they were thinking about me, what they were saying about me. I couldn’t call anybody – I didn’t have any money. So it was hard.
“I couldn’t trust anybody, because I got betrayed. It was sort of like my trust was gone. I didn’t have any trust in anybody.”
It took Sonya – a 5-ft.-7-in. Kenyan-Japanese woman — about a year and a half just to get used to the mostly Latina prison. She learned to watch her back and how to survive alongside people she knew might smile at her one minute and try to stab her the next. She went to art classes, learned to speak some Spanish, learned not to scream when she saw a cockroach.
A friend comes knocking
Then around fall 2009, a ReachGlobal missionary named Judy came to El Buen Pastor to talk to another inmate who was taking her sweet time getting ready. Judy had heard from another woman who also ministered at the prison that there was a nice inmate from Germany who also might need a friend. While she waited for the first woman, Judy recognized Sonya and started talking to her.
Judy continued to visit the prison once a week. Every week it was the same drill – wait an hour or more for the first woman, and talk to Sonya in the meantime.
Judy recalls the time when she pulled Sonya close in the noisy courtyard and sang a hymn in her ear, a song about how God knew her and saw her tears and longed to be her Savior.
“I would just sit with her,” says Judy, 63. “And it just seemed that the Holy Spirit planted a love in my heart for this young woman.”
In the months that followed, Judy became a second mother to Sonya – helping her with homework, reading the Bible with her and listening as Sonya talked about the difficulties of prison life.
“She believed in me even when I didn’t believe in me,” Sonya says. “He reflected His love in her.”
That relationship continued after Sonya was extradited to Germany in July 2010 to finish the final six months of her sentence. It helped her deal with the death of her mother two months later, and continues to encourage her as she works to earn concurrent high school and business school diplomas designed to prepare her for a career as a commercial trade assistant in the import/export business. She’s even found a church on Judy’s recommendation.
“I found my way back to God,” Sonya says. “It took me a while, but I found my way back.”
Sonya’s real hope, however, is to work full-time with street kids. Judy was the first person she ever told about that dream, back in the chaos of that covered courtyard at El Buen Pastor, when Judy was helping her understand and accept God’s love for her.
“I want to help kids on the street in Third World countries,” Sonya says. “I want to help them get education – kids who got raped, who got abused from parents or some adults or whatever. I just want to help them find God so they understand why things happen, and it’s not their fault, and it’s for a reason.”
Read more about Sony’a story.
Read more about ReachGlobal’s work in Costa Rica.
Read about ReachGlobal in Latin America.