“If you get a calling from the spirit, you have to go”
Ministering to Chinese inmates in New South Wales
The Call of God
It was 2017 when Pastor Chee Fung heard the call of God, “Come and work here.” But it wasn’t another church that God was calling Pastor Chee to; it was a prison.
Pastor Chee is the Chinese-speaking team leader for Prison Fellowship in New South Wales. Arriving from Hong Kong in 1991, Pastor Chee is a part-time pastor at North Side Chinese Alliance Church in Sydney, and spends the rest of his week volunteering in prisons.
Pastor Chee first stepped foot in a prison in 1994. “We got a feeling,” he explains. “The Chinese inmates couldn’t speak English. So we went to the prison to help the inmates and teach the gospel.”
One inmate Pastor Chee visited, Li*, was serving a life sentence for drug-related offences. After praying together, Li began to understand that God loved Him and had a plan for his life. He saw that God had placed him in prison to preach the gospel to other inmates.
After working full-time as a parish pastor for 3 years and studying at Bible College for a further 3.5 years, Pastor Chee felt God’s call to volunteer in prisons. “If you get a calling from the Spirit, you have to go,” Pastor Chee explains. “Prison ministry is my calling.”
After meeting with Richard Feeney, who was working for Prison Fellowship in Sydney, Pastor Chee began visiting Chinese inmates in prisons with a team of forty other Prison Fellowship volunteers from several Chinese churches in Sydney. As a native Cantonese speaker, Pastor Chee also dedicated time to learning Mandarin so that he could minister to inmates who couldn’t speak English or Cantonese.
“There are complicated relationships between the inmates,” Pastor Chee explains. “They can’t trust each other in prison”, so many inmates are desperate to talk with someone they can trust.
Many Chinese inmates don’t have friends and family in Australia who can visit them, so when Pastor Chee asks to meet with inmates one-on-one, they feel safe talking to him. “You’re a pastor,’ they say to him. “You’re not police, I can tell you everything I am thinking and feeling.” Many inmates are touched that Pastor Chee is a volunteer, not a paid worker. “You don’t know me”, they say, “but you still drive a long long way to visit me.”
Pastor Chee explains that many inmates feel trapped in prison, “There’s no exit. But I tell them that God is the exit. Many inmates are looking for life, they are hungry to know God. They can’t look after their families anymore, so I tell them ‘God can look after them. I can teach you how to pray.’ When you see someone and pray with them, it’s an experience of God.”
“I can see God’s power in the jail. This is the strength for me to keep going. It’s not our power, it’s the Holy Spirit! All these acts of God encourage us to keep going.”
Prison Visits in the Time of COVID
When the coronavirus pandemic halted all in-person prison visits, Pastor Chee and his team were forced to make changes.
Instead of visiting in person, the team began making regular video calls to the inmates. But, he laughs, “We can actually visit more inmates at a time. And each inmate can bring their Bible along with them, which they aren’t allowed to do at in-person visits. So we have Bible studies together.”
Another unexpected benefit of video calls is that Pastor Chee and his team can meet with prisoners from all over the state on the same day! From Sydney to Lithgow, and up to Port Macquarie, the team can visit inmates without driving a single kilometre.
“Nothing can stop our ministry,” he grins.
As many of the inmates Pastor Chee visits are Chinese nationals, they are immediately deported upon their release, and it is difficult to stay in touch with them. However, as international borders reopen, Pastor Chee is confident that he will be able to travel overseas and visit some ex-prisoners in China and Hong Kong.
Pastor Chee feels very lucky to be able to volunteer part time in the prisons, “I thank God for his provision. I just follow him.”
Bring hope to inmates. Volunteer in prisons around Australia with Prison Fellowship. To learn more, contact your local state office.