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    ‘Gringo’ jail chaplain for Tijuana has seen it all

    When Dave Walden was attending Bethel Seminary, he knew that more than anything, he wanted to be used by God to shed light in hearts of darkness. Born in San Diego, Walden had grown up as a surfer and fun-loving young man who became dedicated to serving God. His ministry thrived as he became a hospital chaplain, then a director of hospital chaplaincy.

    Earlier, Dave had been the chaplain at Abraxis High School, where tough kids in the South Bay are given the opportunity to earn diplomas after being expelled from other high schools. Here his straight talk and commitment to preach the gospel of Christ turned “chaplain” into “Chappy.” With a Hip Hop ring to it and acceptance by some of the toughest kids, Chappy Dave may have felt that his ministry to hardened hearts had found a home.

    What he didn’t know was that this was merely practice for what God really had in mind.

    “My wife Sandee and I went with an Hispanic couple down to Tijuana, where they were in charge of an orphanage and had a related ministry to young prostitute girls. On the way to the orphanage, they took a detour to La Mesa Prison, where they had to stop for about 45 minutes. We approached the 20-foot walls of La Pinta, ‘little city,’ crossed through a small metal door, had our arms and hands stamped, then passed through to a scene right out of Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Walden.

    La Mesa Prison, a federal prison, rests in the heart of Tijuana, about eight miles within the city limits. The prison is 110 years old and runs on the principle of Napoleonic Law — a prisoner is guilty until he or she can prove innocence. Once arrested, a prisoner has no rights. He or she is provided soup for breakfast and lunch, and soggy bread for dinner. Unless he or she can pay, a prisoner has no cell, no bedding, no access to the outside world, no protection, no clothing. Guards with machine guns line the prison walls, but inside, there is no supervision. Six thousand prisoners create their own system of justice based on power, force, abuse, drugs, sex trafficking and violence. Those who can pay are able to buy cells, or even small, studio condominiums that sell for $20,000 and can be locked. Money means life or death.

    “When the doors opened we walked through a thousand people who were filthy, violent, nude, prostituting themselves, taking drugs, beating the women and raping the children. Yes, men, women and children were mixed together with no help, order, or structure,” said Walden. “As we followed our friends to their Hispanic Christian service, there were 70 men and women, clean, healthy and vibrant, singing praises and worshipping. What a contrast to the depravity going on outside the room.

    “As we walked out to our car and put the horror behind us, I asked my friend, ‘Are there Americans in there?

    “Yes,” he said.

    “Where are they?


    “My heart broke then and there, ‘Oh, my God!’”

    “My wife saw my face and she even shook her finger under my nose. ‘You are NOT going back in there,’ she said.

    “It’s just not right,’ I said, ‘There are Americans in there.’”

    Walden went home and sent out 50-60 postcards to his prayer supporters and asked them to pray.

    The formation of Chappy Dave’s ministry to the Americans at La Mesa Prison developed rapidly. The first time he went back, he prayed outside the walls for three hours and when he finally gained entrance, he met with one man. The next time he prayed outside for two hours and met with the man again. The third time he prayed for one hour outside the walls and he met with Jay and two others. By the fourth time, there were 15 people waiting to pray with him. Chappy Dave decided to stand on a table and preach a message of salvation with an interpreter. “Let’s talk about Jesus!” he shouted, which caught the attention of the director of the prison. By the fifth week, an administrator, Ramon Para Carrera, director of religious groups at La Mesa, touched his shoulder and said, “Come with me.”

    “I had no idea what was going to happen,” said Walden, “But I followed him to a small concrete room. Then he said, ‘I make you chaplain for Norte Americanos.’ He gave me a badge and a room. When he left, I said to myself, “I guess I have another ministry.”

    Within two months there were 100 American prisoners attending services. Leaders rose up and became indigenous pastors. Walden trained teams to visit the prison weekly and they began to advocate for separate cells for men and women and separate groupings for Americans. After two years, they were able to bring in mail, establish links with the families of the prisoners, cash checks and advocate for innocent prisoners.

    Once an American prisoner is charged in Tijuana, he or she will typically be taken to La Mesa and put into a 16×16 holding area with about 30 others. That’s where the initial abuse takes place, especially the sexual abuse from the guards. Then begins a long wait for processing. Once there is a trial, sentences are typically long-term — 5 years to 25 years to life are typical sentences. Payment of fines can generate leniency and costly appeals are possible. After 18 months, an American is eligible to apply to be transferred to La Tuna Prison in Texas, where the felony still applies. Out of 6,000 inmates at La Mesa, about 120 are American.

    And what are these “felony” crimes? Often trivial matters such as partying with friends that gets too loud or out of hand. Trumped up traffic violations or drug charges can quickly turn into federal crimes. Drug trafficking is the charge that results from taking a prescription from an American physician and filling it at a Tijuana pharmacy. (See Grandpa Was a Drug Dealer?) Because Americans are primary targets for a revenue-based system of justice, they are often victims — unprepared and unsuspecting of the dreadful consequences. Of the 16 American women and 100 American men who attend Walden’s services, the average age is 18 to 25.

    “They go to party and they get set-up and they get popped,” said Walden. “They have a felony that ruins their lives and that needs to be told to San Diego students. Many of them come from San Diego State University.”

    Jason was not an innocent American student, but a hardened, 35-year-old American mercenary who had been fighting in Central America when he visited Rosarita Beach. Sleeping in his car, he was awakened and attacked. In the ensuing fight, he shot the ear off a police officer. He had spent several years in La Mesa Prison and was sentenced for 25 years when Chappy Dave first noticed him standing outside the room during weekly services. A month later he finally stepped inside and a month after that, Jason gave his heart and life to Jesus Christ. Eventually, Jason learned to play guitar and served as a worship leader.

    Miraculously, through the prayers and efforts of Walden’s team, Jason’s sentence was commuted and he began a new life in his hometown in Ohio, going to college, playing guitar in church, even falling in love. He wrote Chappy Dave on the anniversary of his release:

    “It is my one-year anniversary and some days are not so good. I still wake up for morning count and sometimes pace my kitchen because it’s the same size as my cell. God worked a miracle and got me out of that pit. A year ago, my hope was gone. If I didn’t have Jesus in that place, I would have been killed trying to escape. Thank you for all you did for me. All those years you fed me and clothed me, but most of all, you brought me to Christ and I know that I am with God.”

    Asked if he thinks about the danger of his ministry, Chappy Dave said that there are more than 50 churches praying regularly for the prison ministry.

    “The most dangerous thing I face each week is the traffic!” he said.

    Still, the need for volunteers is great, and the need for support is ever-constant.

    “In Mexico,” he explained, “there is an openness to religious activity. We model the character of Christ and the love of Christ. It’s their football and their football field, so we walk very humbly into that prison. The young American women need prayer and support because of the abuse by the guards. I’m looking for women leaders who can go in with me on Thursdays for the women.”

    “I need communicators who can just plain write letters to the families of the prisoners. There’s a need to collect soap, toothpaste, reading glasses, Bibles and other discipleship materials. Then there are the practical supplies like towels and blankets. We try to provide money for a soda or a burrito to at least 80 to 100 prisoners a week so they can get some nourishment and keep up their strength,” said Walden. “And, of course, I would love to have good, solid, biblically-grounded pastors and leaders to help teach.”

    Recently, Chappy Dave has been called to a new ministry next door to the prison, “for the Grammies and Grampies that we found abandoned and dying in the street.” Called, “El Refugio,” this convalescent home provides an opportunity for volunteers to visit every Saturday, to sing, to sit and to listen to these 79 elderly people.

    As he wrote recently, “The heart of what is taking place here is Christian witness. The passion for God’s word inside La Mesa is the powerful message that is transforming lives. From despair to rejoicing is the real headline.”

    Open to God’s calling, Chappy Dave continues to launch ministries to meet human needs. Under the umbrella of MOTE, Ministry on the Edge, he continues the hospital chaplaincy and training, a public school chaplaincy, Strong Tower men’s rehabilitation center, an After School Homework Club ministry and the La Mesa Prison ministry. For more information, visit or contact him at (858) 748-4237.

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