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Mulenga Chella said it was God’s plan for him to go prison.
In 2006, Chella, a master of divinity student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, was imprisoned in Tanzania, directly north of his home country in Zambia. He spent two years in prison and was released in October 2008.
“This was the will of God for me,” Chella said.
A year before he went to prison, a fellow minister used Chella as an example that God can use people in miraculous ways. The minister said God could use Chella by sending him to prison.
Chella said he did not want to believe God would ever allow him to suffer in prison, and as time passed he forgot about the minister’s words.
Ten months later, Chella met an African man named Trojack, who said he was a missionary helping widows and children. The man invited Chella to go along with him to Tanzania for mission work.
Chella said when they arrived in Tanzania, they were confronted by police officers.
“For the first time in my life, a gun was pointed to my head,” he said.
The police officers told Chella that the man he was with was an international criminal and the vehicle they had been traveling in was stolen.
Chella said because he was a foreigner with a criminal in a stolen vehicle, law enforcement assumed he was a criminal too.
Before being taken into a prison cell, Chella was put in a police holding cell that was about 10 feet by 16 feet.
“There were about 30 men sleeping on the concrete floor with bed bugs everywhere,” he said. “The room had no running water.”
Just before entering the cell, Chella emptied his pockets, handing over $5 to the guard to hold for him. The men in the cell saw the exchange and began to taunt Chella, asking him for money.
After searching his pockets and finding nothing, they got angry and began to beat Chella.
“I was thrown into the toilet and covered in human waste,” he said.
Chella said he was angry with God at the time for allowing this injustice.
“I cried to the Lord and asked him why he allowed me to suffer,” he said.
One of the men who had beaten him heard Chella praying, and he asked Chella to pray for him too. Although tempted to pray for the man’s death, Chella prayed for the man’s well-being. Chella said his prayer was answered, and the man was released from prison.
However, prison was even worse than the holding cell. Three people slept on a mattress meant for one and the food was measly and disgusting, Chella said.
“When you compare African prisons to American prisons, American prisons are what we consider a five-star hotel,” he said.
Chella said one of the men who slept on the mattress next to his was insane. He had killed his entire family — father, mother and two other relatives — with an ax.
“I prayed endlessly for protection,” Chella said.
Chella said trusting God was not easy, especially being in close quarters with the man who had deceived him.
“Trojack was a wicked, deceptive criminal,” Chella said. “He had made enemies even with the most feared criminals in prison.”
Not all hope was gone, though. Chella made a friend named Masho.
Masho, an elderly man, was serving a life sentence. In 1973, Masho’s brothers had committed murder and although Masho was innocent, he too was convicted of murder. Masho had become a Christian while in prison and prayed that if God spared his life then he would share the Word of God.
“Since then, he preached the Word like a madman,” Chella said.
Prisoners come in and out every day, and those who are imprisoned for life meet thousands of people over time, Chella said.
“Some 40,000 prisoners have been saved because of Masho,” he said.
Chella said Masho encouraged his faith.
“That man inspired me to stop complaining and preach the word,” Chella said.
Chella said Trojack attempted to break out of the prison. When his escape failed, he tried to commit suicide by drinking poison, but the poison left him unconscious for two weeks.
The police advised Chella to let the man die because any kindness shown to him would make Chella look like he was indeed friends with the criminal and, therefore, guilty.
“It was a hard decision,” Chella said. “By the grace of God, I surrendered to God’s Word. I nursed Trojack and did all the dirty work. I washed his diarrhea-stained clothes and fed him.”
Chella said he kept referring to Matthew 5, which calls people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.
“If it was not for the Bible I had, I would not be alive today,” he said.
It was while caring for Trojack that Chella struggled with ontological questions like what is life and what is the meaning of living.
“It was in those moments that I learned that life is an opportunity to love, to honor God and serve mankind,” Chella said.
Chella said after two weeks, Trojack recovered and wept for the love he had been shown. When their time in court came, Trojack said Chella was innocent.
“Trojack opened the doors for my release,” Chella said. “Had he not, I would have been in prison for 10 years.”
Chella said he learned from the pain.
“What man intended for evil, God intended for good,” he said. “It was worth it. I have come to know God better.”
Wes Yeary, director of sports ministries, is friends with Chella and often has Chella speak to Baylor athletes.
“Mulenga Chella is authentic and passionate,” Yeary said. “He bubbles with joy when he shares the Lord. His faithfulness is so inspiring to me.”
Chella said anyone going through a difficult time should hold onto their faith.
“Trust in the Lord that he will bring a testimony out of your trials,” Chella said.
Patience was also an important aspect of Chella’s journey to a greater faith.
“I prayed and prayed for months, for a year,” he said. “The enemy filled my heart with thoughts that God was not real. God would not let me suffer like this. My faith was tested. God gave me the strength and I was blessed.”
Pat Murphy, the pastor of donor ministries and director of development at Antioch Community Church in Waco, met Chella in 2012 while visiting Northrise University, a private Christian college in Africa.
“God gave Chella some sort of encouragement, using an example that pierced his heart,” Murphy said. “The Lord planted a seed.”
Murphy said it is unlikely any American will endure what Chella endured, yet Chella is not angry or bitter.
“If he can come out of that, why can’t we, amidst our struggles, draw near to God?” he said.
Chella got his bachelor’s degree in theology from Northrise University. Chella said he was called into full-time ministry.
After Truett, he plans to return to Africa and plant churches. He has written a book about his life called “Story of Surrender,” which is still in the editing process.
“The Angel told Mary there is nothing that is impossible with God,” Chella said, “I have faith in that.”