You Visited Me

Loving Jesus Through Prisoners is Demanding But Deeply Rewarding

– Morag Zwartz, Prison Fellowship Volunteer

Not so long ago a man at a church function asked me an earnest – and very direct – question, not the slightly loaded one about why I visit a men’s prison. It was refreshing, especially because he didn’t accompany it with the slightly irritating “that’s amazing” response. He did me a favour, this man, because he set me on a path of reflection that I still stroll along, trying to answer this and similar questions (a personal challenge) without recourse to cliché.

So I’m going to answer this man boldly and honestly, but first an essential consideration is this: I am blessed to be old – or oldish, anyway – and this brings certain liberties. You can’t call everyone you meet “darling” when you’re 25, if you know what I mean. So, I go into a men’s prison because I have a desire to hang out with those whom society deems the lowest of the low (Matt. 25:36).

Most of all, I identify with the people I meet in prison. I stand in the same place as each of them apart from Christ, namely, before a holy and righteous and gloriously perfect Creator and Judge, condemned. One hundred per cent not good enough. A failure, though perhaps slightly less conspicuously than they are.

I feel especially privileged to be permitted entry into a place where few outsiders can go.

There is an always-present “wow” feel in this, for me. To think that people who are, by order of the state, utterly separated from the rest of us, some never to walk among us again, completely curtailed in their capacity to operate with agency or liberty – to think that we prison volunteers may walk among them! And that in doing so, in a handshake or a smile or a brief chat or a deeper conversation, we may breathe out our love and our care and our concern and our hope and our longing, for them.

You visited me

We spread the net as wide as we can, and if there is one or even two who respond we are overjoyed.

My first lesson was this: each prisoner is uniquely different. I must not think “they”. The collective noun prisoners – if I am not vigilant – will sell both of us short, if it renders them merely a homogenous, unsavoury or dangerous mob, as can so easily happen. Even if both are true the men are still individuals with a unique background and life experience, and they must be regarded, and loved, as such.

If I had to nominate the most oft-repeated comment in my prison conversations it would sound something like this: “God is way more merciful than we are. You may never be forgiven by … but you can know that you are forgiven by the One who matters most.” And I remind myself that just having someone listen to our ugly baggage can be a milestone in our healing or recovery, or maybe just a leg-up in our slow struggle toward a better life. It is hardly necessary to raise the subject of God or faith or purpose. It is the glaring reality of those men who want to talk, who open up about themselves and their problems. And in prison we enjoy a particular freedom, an absence of the normal impediments for connecting with strangers. No need for niceties, just “Hello miss, what do you do/what are you here for?”

Despite what I said about being unshockable, I do have to hear and see things that I would much rather avoid. There may be a gruesomely sordid tale behind a man’s incarceration, but this is a cost we must face, to be told the details of some such tales.

It’s also true that a maximum security prison is not a pleasant physical environment. There are unpleasant smells. There is no beauty, there is little colour, there is only harshness and hardness in the physical realm, hard surfaces and heavy doors and metal gates and barbed-wire fences and multiple locks. I guess all that makes it a place where people who love God must be!

*First published in Australian Presbyterian, used with permission.