Ministering to inmates in Tasmania
Bill Folkerts has seen the amazing impact of prison ministry up close. For the last 4 years, Bill has mentored inmates and ex-prisoners in Tasmanian prisons. For some of these inmates, Bill is almost the only person in their life who takes an interest in their wellbeing.
I met up with Bill to ask him what it is that he loves about this ministry.
“I guess I’m someone who looks out for the underdog. God’s put that in my nature. So I guess it’s really my love of God and also my desire to help people on the margins, because I feel they don’t get the opportunities they deserve.”
What does your prison ministry involve?
“At the moment I’m visiting four guys on the inside. I try to visit them every two or three weeks, for support, encouragement, and just to catch up. One of them is a Christian, so I aim to encourage him in his Christian walk.
I’m involved in an Alpha course – that’s exciting because you see guys really taking hold of the message of the Gospel and what God, through Jesus, has done for them!
I’m also involved in chapel services. Plus I write letters and mentor ex-prisoners.”
What do you talk to the inmates about?
“We just talk about their lives, how they’re managing. It’s a matter of getting to know them, what their interests are, their dreams for the future. Just whatever they want to talk about.”
Have you seen inmates come to Christ?
“Yes, I have seen people come to faith inside. It’s great knowing that Jesus can change people’s lives and change people’s hearts! People who’ve had a hard life and have a lot of things going against them, there is still hope for something better.”
One of the men I mentor was a Christian before prison, but he had a troubled life and got into some serious trouble. But he’s been a faithful believer, and he’s happy that he’s now in a section with several other Christians, so they can support each other. It has kept him going, his faith.”
What do you love about volunteering?
“I guess the sense of giving back to others; of sharing some of the good things that God has done in my life. In some ways, being God’s hands and feet, and putting the gospel into action by loving, reaching out, and seeking to understand people.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in my own head. Volunteering helps me to reach out and to see others’ needs, others’ pain, and help them in that. That’s what we’re all called to do, to be there for others, loving our neighbour, especially our neighbour in need.
And it helps to cross some social boundaries that you wouldn’t normally. We can be very caught up in our own comfortable middle-class life, and it’s good to go outside that a little bit and see that God is at work in other people’s lives too, from other backgrounds.”
Is it rewarding work?
“To be able to encourage these guys in what can be a discouraging and negative environment – yes, that is rewarding. To be able to see the best in people and affirm them in that. Every little bit of encouragement, every little bit of help along the way – it’s like people running a marathon. If they had to do it on their own, they could get very weary and tired, and give up halfway through. But if there is a supportive person saying, ‘Come on! You can do it, the finish line isn’t too far away,’ to help them see some positives in their lives, that encouragement and support is powerful.
And at times you have miracles of new birth, and that’s the ultimate reward!
John* was Christian when he was sent to prison, but his faith was a bit lukewarm. God used his time inside to say, ‘Wake up!’ He came back to a stronger and renewed faith. To see John’s smiling face when he was reunited with his family upon his release – God has rekindled his faith, and he’s really ready to move forward in his life – that’s really exciting!”
You also support ex-prisoners. What does that look like?
It can vary – it depends on the person. If they’re a Christian, they need to be introduced to a supportive church, with people they can form friendships with.
It’s tough work [for ex-prisoners after release], especially when you’ve got a family who is rejecting you, and friends who are unstable. A lot of things are going against them. It’s not easy. Everyone needs someone who believes in them and who models God’s unconditional love. That’s what I aim to do.
Dave* was very encouraged when he came along to church for the first time. People found out he’d been in prison, but he was accepted on face-value, and people befriended him. One visitor said to Dave, ‘You’ve been inside, but for the grace of God there go I. I’m not necessarily better, I’ve been given different opportunities.’”
How would you sum up your experience of prison ministry?
“I’d sum it up as a great learning experience, a humbling experience.
When I see what struggles and backgrounds and what issues the guys have to contend with, it helps me understand them and their actions. I have found it frustrating at times because things don’t go in a straight line, progress is not consistent.
In a sense I feel it’s a privilege to be part of other people’s lives, people who want help and seek help. It is rewarding when you see people with their prospects and their lives turn in positive directions.
I think a lot of people are fearful [of volunteering in prisons] because they feel these are people who are really different from them. But when you get beyond some of the externals, you come to appreciate that we all have the same needs. We all want to belong, we all want to be loved, we all want to be valued. We all want to make a contribution. When you see that in the people, you can help them on the journey to discovering some of those positive things. A lot of the differences in society are because of the opportunities we’ve had. We all have the same basic needs.
At the end of the day, we’re called to be faithful, and the results are in God’s hands. I’d encourage people to overcome their fear and follow the Master’s exhortation.”
Bring hope to inmates. Volunteer in prisons around Australia with Prison Fellowship. To learn more, contact your local state office