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Prison Fellowship AustraliaSaturday, January 28th, 2023 at 8:00pm
The margins of society.

It’s a term often used to identify the space in which prisoners find themselves. Separated, divided, apart from others. Usually the margins are not crossed over, and when they are traversed it is only in isolated circumstances.

I’ve been working with Prison Fellowship and entering prisons for 5 years. Prison ministry is one of the most challenging spaces I have ever worked in, and that has nothing to do with the inmates. Prison is a place where the rules can change at any moment and often without explanation. It can be a challenging and discouraging environment.

Yet, prison ministry is also full of surprising moments of encouragement. Recently, while running Change on the Inside with the 10 inmates who had requested to take part, I was suddenly and unexpectedly encouraged. We were coming to the final session for the day when some of the comments just seemed to make it all worth it.

“We really appreciate you coming in and being so vulnerable with us, letting us see that you have the same struggles as us. The other guys that come in behave high and mighty, but you really show us you care.”

Although it was Jason* who spoke the words, some of the others around the room nodded in agreement and later expressed deep gratitude to us.

As a State Manager I go to great lengths to let the guys in prison know that the men and women who visit them are volunteers. They are doing what they do because they care for them. They want to be in the ‘space’ and spend time engaging. They want to traverse that line and be there in the margins with them.

The longer I am part of this ministry, the more I want my friends, family, and the wider Church to visit prison with me so they too can see there is nothing to fear. To see that there are beautiful men and women who are discarded and forgotten by society, many of whom long for real change in their lives. And who, like all people on either side of the margin line, find self-worth in knowing they are loved and cared for.

It reminds me that our volunteers in prisons are somewhat like the kindly harvester and the sheaves of wheat spoken of in Ruth 2:2-4.

“One day Ruth, the Moabite foreigner, said to Naomi, ‘I’m going to work; I’m going out to glean among the sheaves, following after some harvester who will treat me kindly.’ Naomi said, ‘Go ahead, dear daughter.’ And so she set out. She went and started gleaning in a field, following in the wake of the harvesters.”

Ruth was anticipating that she would find wheat that the harvester had left along the margins of the field, as was the requirement of the Law. But she was hoping to encounter an abundance that was even more than the required amount, so that she and her mother-in-law, Naomi, could eat. Both being widows they were struggling to survive.

In the same way, prisoners enter our rooms expecting to perhaps, at minimum, encounter some meaningful engagement with those from the other side of the margin.

These women didn’t just find the added generosity of abundance in the margins that day; their lives were changed forever through an encounter with Boaz, the owner of the fields. I know that the same can happen in the lives of inmates as they encounter the abundance of God’s love when expressed through volunteers who go into the margins.

Lives are changed forever through these encounters – and that is our constant prayer at Prison Fellowship Australia, that more people step into the abundance of the margin experience of being a volunteer.

Ian Townsend
State Manager SA and NT

*Names have been changed
Prison Fellowship Australia
Prison Fellowship AustraliaThursday, January 26th, 2023 at 11:00pm
Aunty Pearl Wymarra has been visiting inmates in New South Wales prisons for over 35 years. After seeing some of her own family and friends in prison, Pearl feels keenly the need to support Indigenous inmates, and is passionate about giving all inmates their best chance after release.



Storytelling is fundamental to Aunty Pearl’s ministry in prisons, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates. “I tell young people to know their story,” she explains. “The way you’re going to survive on the outside is to get to know your story, first in your heart. Balance it with your mind and develop the language to express it. Stories are important. If you [get to know your own story] you’ll be able to hold your own within your language, peer group, and outsiders too.”



“I know this works because a girl came to me at a function and introduced me to her kids. Beaming at me, Rachel* said, ‘I’ll never forget you telling us different stories about identity. Because of that, I was able to do what I needed to do once I got out of prison.’”



“A woman once heard me talk about the healing power of heartfelt and genuine listening. Afterwards she said to me, “So are you saying, ‘hearts are for listening, ears are for hearing.’ She was right! It’s just as important to listen to other people’s stories, and to listen with your heart. It is in another person’s story that you will find an answer for yours. When we share stories, we learn things that will be good for our own story.”



Sharing her own story is an important part of Pearl’s ministry. “I told my story how it was,” she said, not holding back the grittier details of growing up on Thursday Island in a large family and not a lot of money.



“I’m still above ground,” she’d say. “I’m still here – I grew up like that, really poor and struggling, and I’m still here. The boys were shocked that I had such a tough time as a kid, and they responded really well. ‘Aunty, that was good’, they’d say to me. I think it helped them to see me as not very different from them. That if I had made something of myself, they could do the same. They would say to me, ‘I’ve heard my grandma talk like you.’



“I shared stories and strategies that I learnt to navigate my way in amongst my tensions in life. I used to tell them about how I dealt with the racism. They related to my stories and found answers for theirs. I taught them stories of people from the past who have been imprisoned for their faith, and how they were able to survive. It’s the power of prayer. The boys really loved what I was doing with them,” she says. “We used to do singing, art, and storytelling. It was just one hour a week, but they were giving good feedback to the staff. I really enjoyed going in each week. ”



Pearl recalls working at a correctional centre without fences. When she worked with the boys, she would warn them, “There are no fences out here, just bush. If anyone does a runner while we’re out here playing rounders this program is going to stop, so you better behave yourselves.” But she says, “The boys respected the rules and appreciated that our group regularly visited them once a month.”



“They always knew I was a Christian, and over time, I drew Jesus into the story and shared Jesus’ life with them. I would tell them, ‘This is how Jesus did it’. My way of sharing the gospel is simplistic – it was from that strong teaching I had as a child. I remember falling in love with Jesus right away! The boys used to listen and were really interested in hearing about Jesus.”



“I would explain to the boys that we’re all captives in life – we’re all in the prisons of our minds. So I challenged them to think about who were the good people in their lives. I would say to them, ‘When you leave here, go back to the good people in your life. They’re waiting out there for you, but so are the ones who contributed to you being in here.’ I encouraged them to protect their spirits. ‘Don’t mix with people who are no good for your spirit. Make sure you go back to the good people!’”



“I like writing new words to old tunes. We were talking about this song written by Andy Travis, ‘There’s room at the cross for you,’ but I changed it to ‘There’s room on the outside for you; your lands are out there.’ I was trying to plant in their minds that they have an identity and there are people waiting for them on the outside, even on their country.”



“I encouraged the boys to make the most of their time inside to heal from the inside out. I encouraged them to write their stories and focus on the positive things that have happened in their lives. There is a uniqueness to the time spent inside, a time that must be used well, not neglected. Make the most of the time inside because when you’re outside you don’t have time – you go back to old patterns.”



“Prison ministry is really vital, because it’s an opportunity to reach out – particularly to young people – to help people to trust again and to know that they can and should make the most of their life while in prison. They should work on the restoration of their spirit, and make time for prayer. We have an opportunity to tell stories of people who have been in prison – we need to be able to share those stories.”



“One day I was at Penrith station in Sydney, and this Aboriginal boy and girl were walking towards me with a stroller. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey Aunty Pearl, how are you? You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your class in prison, when you used to come in and teach us.’ And I said, ‘Oh, Mitchell* you’re out now!’ He said, ‘Yeah, and this is my partner and our kid.’ We had a great yarn, and that was a lovely thing to happen to me that day. It was so rewarding.”

*Names have been changed
Prison Fellowship Australia
Prison Fellowship AustraliaTuesday, January 24th, 2023 at 11:00pm
I’ve been volunteering with Prison Fellowship since 2017 and as an assistant chaplain since 2021. I’ve had a wonderful time working with the team here! I consider it an incredible opportunity to be part of a world-wide team that is so well-established and well-organised.

It’s a very rewarding experience, working in prisons. The inmates who attend our chapel services are so encouraged to have the chance to fellowship and worship with other Christians. Each time they hear the Word of God, their desire to learn continues to grow – It’s very moving and energising for us as volunteers!

I’ve seen many inmates give their life to God over the years. One man in particular, Michael*, is from one of the Northern Territory islands. I met him many years ago in the community, and a few years later he found himself in prison. Michael began attending our chapel services each Saturday in the prison.

One day after Saturday chapel, I asked him what kept him coming to the services, and he replied, “Well, Phil, I came to prison not having anything to read. I looked and looked for something to read, and I only ever found a Bible. So, I began to read it. And I read and I read, and it began to change my heart. Over time it also began to change my life.”

We began to see that something in Michael was different. And a few weeks later after one of our church services, he called me aside. His face glowed with relief and peace as he told me, “Phil, I had a visit from my wife this week and she said that she had forgiven me.” He had already been transformed by God’s forgiveness, and now he had been forgiven by his wife!

When Michael finished his sentence he moved back home and helped to establish a local secondary school. More recently, Michael is a visiting elder to the prison in Darwin – he’s very well-respected in the prison.

There’s nothing like speaking to people who are desperate to hear what you’re saying. When we tell the stories of Jesus, you can see the guys connect with them. When you’re talking to these guys, they really want to hear what you’ve got to say. That’s a real blessing. Volunteering in prisons has been one of the highlights of my life!

The Lord bless you for your service.

Phil
Former prison chaplain and State Advisory Council member, SA/NT

Read all the stories here: https://prisonfellowship.org.au/news/