The Wounded Healer
Why our own brokenness is so important
What makes a great Prison Fellowship volunteer? Sometimes the lines that divide us, inside or outside prison, are wafer thin, and in my work with Prison Fellowship I am learning that our own brokenness is key to our ministry.
David*, a PF volunteer, was deeply moved when he met a Christian inmate, Cody*, who was likely to spend the rest of his life inside prison. Cody had received a life-sentence after striking and killing his wife. As he arrived home from work one night, Cody’s wife confessed to him, “All our children aren’t yours.” In his shock and anger, he struck her. She fell and died. Heartbroken by his actions, Cody acknowledged his guilt and accepted his prison sentence. As a believer, he was repentant, knew God’s forgiveness, and experienced great peace. David was amazed that Cody had such peace about his situation. “It could have been me,” David said. “I have no idea how I would respond to that news.” By recognising his own brokenness, David was able to connect with Cody as an equal, fostering a friendship of empathy and transformation.
The Wounded Healer
In his book, “The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society”, Henri Nouwen argues that our brokenness is not there to produce feelings of inadequacy and guilt, but rather to bring us to a place where we can experience God’s healing grace. Through this experience of grace, we are, as Nouwen says, “made strong in our weakness” to be a source of healing for others. As Nouwen says, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
Nouwen goes on to say that Christians make their deepest connections with God and others through the shared experience of suffering. In fact, he argues that outside of this sharing one cannot have a transformative influence in the lives of others. In my experience, this ability to appropriately acknowledge, and sometimes share one’s own brokenness, is what makes a great Prison Fellowship volunteer.
Matt spent 12 years in prison for drug-related burglaries. Drugs helped mask the pain of his abusive childhood and the memory of seeing his mother being beaten by his father. One of Matt’s victims, Frank*, was a 94 year old man and his wife, who passed away the day after the burglary.
In prison, Matt had participated in the Sycamore Tree Project, and came face to face with victims of crime. “Meeting the victims of crime, even if they weren’t my victims… it was scary. I thought these people were looking at me like I was a criminal but they weren’t at all… Even after what they’d been through, they were so willing to give people like me another chance, and another chance, and another chance.”
“They sat down and listened to me… they teared up to hear what sort of life that I’ve been through… They just wanted to do right by us, even though we did wrong by them…”
A few years later when Matt had the opportunity to meet Frank, Matt offered to pay back every cent that he had stolen. Frank was still angry with Matt, but he said, “I don’t want your money. I just want you to keep following God. If you keep following God, that’s a bigger gift than you could ever give me”.
Before Matt’s court hearing, Frank called him and said, “I wish you good luck. And I hope you don’t get jail for what you did to me, because I have faith in you that you’re going to follow the right path from here on in.”
“I couldn’t believe it.” Matt said. “I’ve come out [of prison] and I’ve moved forward in life. I now know God loves me unconditionally.”
The kindness and compassion of Frank and the other victims Matt met radically altered his life. When we realise that we are all broken, wounded people, we have the opportunity to be a source of healing for others – and this is when we glimpse the mystery of transformation.
Shayne and Bob’s story
Shayne* was struggling with mental illness, and was prone to cutting himself. Mental health professionals had struggled to find a carer for him, and were going to move him to a locked ward at a mental health hospital. But then Shayne met Bob* at his local church. Bob was on probation, and was recovering from alcohol abuse. After being introduced to each other at church one day, Bob agreed to work as Shayne’s carer. After some time Shayne reflected, “Bob, you saved my life! If it wasn’t for you, I would be in a locked ward; I may even be dead”. Bob replied, “Well Shayne, you saved my life, too; if it wasn’t for you, I would be drinking myself to death every night. I have found God through you!”
Once we acknowledge that we are all broken vessels in desperate need of grace, God’s light can shine through us. He can transform us and change others through us.
*Names have been changed
Pray for all our volunteers, that God would be working powerfully through them as they offer genuine, open friendship to inmates around Australia.