“Your story is your story, if you know it no one can take it away from you.”
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