Pedro Campbell was sent to prison for the ninth time early last year — but this time was very different.
He was back behind bars because of a crime he had committed, as was the case with all of his previous prison stretches.
But this time the 35-year-old former gangster and feared senior member of the violent Numbers gang that “controls” South African prisons was on fire for Jesus Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel fearlessly.
Before he went back to prison — about a year after he became a follower of Jesus — Pedro said the Lord assured him he would care for his wife and children while he was away and that He would use his time in jail for His glory.
During his time in St Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth and Patensie Prison hardcore gangsters came to Christ through Pedro’s witnessing, he preached at Sunday church services in a prison courtyard, and he even ministered to warders who lived in constant fear of being stabbed or murdered by prisoners.
“Every day I felt the joy of the Lord because He was using me. Truly, it was the best time of my life to know that my children were being well looked after by the Lord and I was being used to do his marvellous work,” said Pedro.
He grew up in Schauderville, PE, in a family and a community that was overshadowed by gangsterism and substance abuse. They were poor, he was uneducated and gangs provided him with a sense of identity and belonging.
He became a member of the 26 branch of the Numbers Gang after he carried out the initiation requirement of assaulting a fellow prisoner until he bled. He said he rose in the ranks of the gang because of his aggression and fearlessness. He became a nyangi (doctor), a high-ranking member who has the right to accept or reject initiates as members of the gang. He also became steeped in the occult through the extensive rituals of gang life, he said.
Pedro’s Numbers Gang status made him a feared person inside and outside prison. But his life took an unexpected turn after he encountered a group of Christians that fed homeless people on a street in Newton Park, PE, on Wednesday evenings. The group, Acts of Bravery, from The Storehouse Church, led a time of worship and shared a Bible-based message before they served the food.
Pedro said that at that time he was living on the streets in the area, begging and stealing to provide for his family in Schauderville. He started attending the Wednesday evening sessions to get the meal and to scout opportunities to break into and steal from the cars of the church members. He also used to get an extra serving of food to take to his family. His life partner, Anneline, who was tiring of their lifestyle and the hardship she endured each time he was jailed, urged him to also listen to the Bible message.
“That’s when the Lord started to minister to me,” said Pedro. He said as he listened to the messages on Wednesday evenings, he sensed that God was telling him that if he continued with his criminal ways his children would end up worse than him but if he followed the Lord their lives would improve.
Hungry for God’s Word
He said he became hungry for the Word of God and went to a church service with members of the ministry group one Sunday morning. He was high on hard drugs at the time but he sensed the love and peace of God and cried out to the Lord to save Him.
When he later told Anneline he had decided to give his life to Jesus, she was overjoyed. They started attending church together on Sundays and the street ministry on Wednesdays.
He said the Lord started using him to witness to people on the streets to give them hope that He could do for them what he had done for Him. At first, people were suspicious as they knew his reputation and he had previously robbed some of them of their begging money or stolen goods.
He started getting garden and painting jobs through the church. While painting at the home of the leader of the church he asked him for a Bible and was given a study Bible.
His hunger and thirst for the Word of God increased and the Word changed his life as he acted on the convictions it brought and he saw the fruit that resulted. For instance, he and Anneline agreed to stop living in sexual immorality until they were married. They were later married in the church, with the Lord graciously providing everything they needed for the wedding.
But he knew of crimes he had committed and Anneline dreamed that police would come for him. Police did come to his parents’ home where they were staying one midnight. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to a charge of theft. The state wanted him to go to prison for seven to eight years but after his wife and members of the church spoke on his behalf he received a 3-years prison sentence.
Boldness to proclaim Gospel
At St Alban’s Prison he was first put in an awaiting-sentence cell with gang members of the 26 group. They could not accept his testimony that he was a Christian and was no longer a member of the gang. “It was unheard of. The rule of the Numbers is there is only one way to leave the gang and that is through blood — death. But the Lord gave me a boldness to stand for Him regardless of whether they assaulted or killed me,” he said.
The 26 members tried to force him to speak out certain ritual words which they said in the mornings but he refused and continued to share the Gospel with his fellow prisoners. The angry leaders of the 26 got him moved to another cell.
“I know I planted the same seeds among them that were planted in my life,” he said about the cell move. He also saw God’s hand in his transfer to a cell where first-time prisoners arrived every day.
“This gave me the opportunity to talk about the saving grace of the Lord with newcomers who were not part of the Numbers and who feared prison. Every day 10 to 20 new ones came and I testified. Many of them knew me and hardcore gangsters — a lot of guys — gave their hearts to the Lord.”
After he was sentenced he was moved to the Medium B section of the prison, where once again he shocked Numbers Gang members with his testimony of what the Lord had done in his life. He faced fierce opposition from some of them but also got to take some of them to services in prison where he introduced them to the Lord.
God also gave him great favour with the warders, who even called him “Pastor” and he was able to visit every cell in the prison to share the Good News of Christ. He would constantly ask the Holy Spirit where he should go and who he should speak to. Many prisoners — especially those with life sentences — sought him and asked him questions.
During his prison time, Pedro also studied the Bible extensively. He was especially encouraged by Paul’s writing from prison in Philippians — especially his statement that his imprisonment was for the advancement of the Gospel (Philippians 1:18).
After three months he was transferred to Patensie Prison which was far from home and meant he could no longer expect visits from Anneline. But he decided to trust the Lord that the move would be for His glory and he was indeed used to proclaim the Gospel day and night at the new prison.
An angry 26 member who initially wanted to assault him later came to Christ. At Patensie, he was also invited to regularly share the Word of God at Sunday services in the prison courtyard.
Eleven months into his three-year sentence he was afforded an opportunity to apply for parole. But at that time he faced a new setback. He was wanted in connection with another old criminal case concerning a theft in Newton Park. He feared he might face another prison stretch but the Lord spoke to him through Romans 8 and assured him that he had been set free through Christ.
He got parole and bail — for the new charge against him — at the same time. He went to trial on the new case and at his last appearance, early this year, the case was withdrawn against him.
Then, Pedro said, God miraculously provided him with a permanent job at an automotive component factory. He visited a recruitment agency in Newton Park where he told them about his criminal past and how he had given his life to Jesus and was now looking for work. It turned out the people he had approached were Christians and they were moved by his testimony and secured him a job.
“I am still proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ to everyone I meet,” he said. “But I always first ask the Lord ‘Must I speak to them?’ or the Lord will give me the desire. And the Lord has also put in my heart the desire to be a giver. I have never been a giver of money or food to people on the street but because I have been there, the Lord has put it in my heart also to be a giver.”
He said the greatest desire of his heart is “to proclaim the Gospel first and foremost, to be a vessel of the Lord, to show His goodness and His greatness by forgiving people and transforming lives”.
His other great dream is to have a house of his own — something he believes the Lord promised to him while he was in prison, saying when He takes him into his promised land, he will give him houses he has not built and vineyards he has not planted and that he must be careful not to do what the people of the land are doing.
“So I’m trusting the Lord for a house where I can raise up my six children in a godly manner. Where I stay now, we are actually almost 30 people in one yard and there is a lot of bad influence, as some are using drugs and some are using alcohol,” said Pedro.