Transformation

My name is Benni* and I am nearly 30 years old. I am currently incarcerated in a maximum security prison.

Growing up I was taught morals, manners and respect. I excelled in primary school but by Year 9 I decided that I was tired of being good. Maybe it was the single incident of sexual abuse or maybe it was watching my older brother being bullied throughout his school life. I didn’t want to be a victim so I decided to be the polar extreme. I became what I was scared of.

I ‘met’ God when I was 16. I was attracted to a Christian girl and asked her out. She rejected me. So I asked to go to church with her. I was not genuine but used it as a way to be with her. When I went I got ‘goose bumps’ all over my body and thought “Maybe this God dude is real”. I kept going to youth group on Fridays and church on Sundays.

I felt like a black sheep but at least I was a sheep.

I became a Christian, was baptized and played in the youth group band. For about a year I was truly happy. I had a romantic notion of going to Afghanistan to hand out Bibles, be killed and become a martyr for God’s cause. When it didn’t happen I became angry with God and fell away.

I started using drugs and very quickly became an addict, I ended up homeless and was imprisoned for armed robbery. I bargained with God to “Let me go home and I’ll be good”. Instead of the 4 years I was expecting, God gave me a suspended sentence!

It was a miracle.

18 months later the same thing happened – again the charges were miraculously dropped.

My drug use took me to a house, one thing led to another, and by the end of the night a man was dead. I had killed him.

In my first few years in prison my behaviour was out of control. I was ostracized and for a whole year nobody spoke to me in the unit. I cried out to God and began reading the Bible.

God used this time to rebuild me into His creation. When I got moved from that unit into a different area with more freedom, amazingly, I was given a single cell and a job in the prison chapel.

 Another miracle!

As a result of this I have been heavily involved in the Prison Fellowship programs and have been a mentor and peer facilitator on many The Prisoner’s Journey courses.

God has completely transformed my life.

He has turned my mistakes into a beautiful testimony that has enabled me to do His work within the prison walls. I now have work to do for His Name and His Kingdom and all the glory goes to God.

Benni.


“A volunteer who has been on a few programs with Benni has heard him share many times how God is actively working in his life, growing him into the man God wants him to be. They said his understanding and way of expressing God’s grace, total acceptance and love to the other inmates, with a very practical picture of what that looks like in a prison environment, is profound. His prayer life is bringing about dramatic changes to his way of thinking and behaving and is in direct contrast to his old ways.”

Sport Lights A Message

Simon* is in prison. He has been in prison for a while! He describes his lifestyle before he went ‘inside’ as “a life of drugs, violence and crime.”  He freely admits that he has not always been a ‘good guy’, even in prison. There were times when he was plain nasty, standing over people and pushing others around.

There were also times when he pretended to be a Christian just so that he could have a pen pal with whom to correspond. He credits the generosity and the good heart of his pen pal as catalysts for what happened next.

January 5th, 2018 was “conversion day”… Simon is very specific!  The previous night he had been reading his Bible and rather liked the idea of being a Christian. On the night of the 5th, however, this vague thought became a reality. In his cell he was hearing footsteps and felt an evil spirit touching him.

“It was the scariest night of my life.” In fear and hope, “I cried out to Jesus and I was relieved at once. I knew immediately – This is real.”  From the next morning he began his spiritual journey and he says: “I am the happiest I have ever been” and “I have different desires and paths to follow. I really want whatever God’s will is for me.”

Simon is not historically or by nature a sportsman. Before prison his sporting experiences were confined to footy and cricket at school. However, the prison has sports facilities which inmates can access, including a basketball court, and it was here that he met the SLAM team. SLAM (Sport Lights a Message) is a Prison Fellowship sporting outreach to inmates in Victoria and there are a number of SLAM teams throughout the State.

A minibus load of Christians arrives on Saturday morning to spend the day playing basketball against inmates. There are four playing sessions, each one hour in duration, and a different unit of the prison takes part each session. At the end of each session someone from the unit will be nominated ‘best & fairest’ and get the treasured prize – a bottle of Gatorade! During each visit there is an opportunity for a SLAM team member to give a testimony.

Simon gravitated to the members of the SLAM team, not primarily because of basketball, but more as an opportunity to be around other Christians and to share his testimony. Imagine the feelings that ran through Simon when he was invited by Darryl to share his testimony on the next SLAM visit!! At first he was sceptical…. but the idea grew on him.

He decided not to write out his speech but to just speak as led by God. He was very nervous but he really wanted to share what God had given him and to tell other inmates that they could have it also. Remember – his audience was “the boys” with whom he lived and from whom he could not escape…. a daunting thought. Everyone watched him and listened and a few boys even said: “Good on ya!” It was a very special and positive experience.

Simon’s mission in the prison has widened and each week on a Tuesday afternoon he meets up with a few boys to share Bible readings. “Coming to the Lord is the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m grateful and keen to learn more. Also – a big thanks to Prison Fellowship!”

– Kevin, Prison Fellowship volunteer writer

SLAM logo

“We have been approached by the management of two Juvenile Centres in Victoria to begin running SLAM programs in their facilities! Please pray for this exciting new opportunity to come to fruition.” – Richard Feeney, VIC State Manager

Mind the Gap

The Gap between prison and the “real world” beyond the gates can be very daunting for inmates nearing release. Many are more fearful of The Gap than they are of life inside prison. The Gap is a dark, blank space between a past that they never want to go back to and a future that seems beyond their reach.

On average, 46% of all inmates return to prison within two years of their release (termed “recidivism”). Consistently high recidivism rates, throughout the country (and throughout the world) point to the difficulty of crossing The Gap.

In Tasmania, Prison Fellowship Australia is involved in a unique partnership to prepare inmates for The Gap. Prison Fellowship’s volunteers partner with Onesimus Foundation to facilitate a six week course for inmates, called Inside Out.

Onesimus Foundation grew out of the Christian Family Centre, a church located next door to Risdon Prison. The foundation works primarily with offenders and their families and provides a range of services that complement the work of Prison Fellowship (and vice versa). The Inside Out course takes inmates on a step-by-step restoration process based on individual engagement. The course was written by Tony Carter, who volunteers with both Onesimus Foundation and Prison Fellowship and is a member of the CFC church.

Upon graduating from Inside Out, inmates are invited to meet regularly with a mentor – including after their release. Sam successfully negotiated The Gap before the course was available, having served a 21-year sentence. He is made of strong stuff, but openly admits that, after his release, “There were times when I sat down and cried, because it was all too hard.” Sam now urges inmates to find a mentor to support them on their journey through The Gap. He promotes Inside Out because it helps inmates to “get real” about the difficulties that lie ahead of them and to see the benefit of talking through the issues with a mentor who they trust.

Prison Fellowship’s partnership with Onesimus Foundation brings together volunteers from both sides of The Gap – some working predominantly on the inside (with current prisoners) and others working mostly on the outside with ex-inmates and with families.

The setting for the course is special. It is held in a low security facility, representing a significant level of trust in the participants by prison management. Participation is a privilege, and this alone elicits a positive response from the inmates. Each week, participants share a home cooked meal with the facilitators. They then spend the afternoon discussing their plans to journey through The Gap. Personal testimonies, written reflections and practical exercises fuel the discussion – most of which takes place in small groups.

You will not be surprised to learn that not all participants experience the complete recovery that we might all hope for, and that not all graduates have been able to negotiate The Gap successfully. The good news is that this partnership, utilising Prison Fellowship volunteers, good food, good fellowship and “real life” discussions have combined to change the lives of many inmates who have now been able to “reclaim the second half of their lives” – as Sam has done.

– Michael Wood, TAS Chairman

Week of Prayer

Week of Prayer 2019 : Forgiveness

September 8 to 15 is Prison Fellowship’s annual Week of Prayer. Please put this week in your calendar and use these prayer points as part of your daily devotional.

There are still some availabilities in every state for guest speakers – contact your local State office to organise a speaker for your church or connect group!

I Was Involved In a Colombian Drug Cartel

“I was chained, my hands to my feet. My value was minus 300. When you get to that point you don’t feel like you are worth anything.” Monty’s arrest was a painful wakeup call. “There was no Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Maybe this was Plan K?! I realised I let everybody down, but God can change my life.” 

Born in Colombia, Monty grew up with a religious background, but he didn’t have a relationship with God. “I got involved with a drug cartel. I was kind of broken, I had a big depression, and sometimes had thoughts of suicide.” 

It was his involvement in the cartel that led to Monty’s arrest. 

“In Proverbs 28:13 it says, ‘If you confess your sins, you will find mercy.’ We don’t deserve mercy but the just work of God is that he must punish sin. I gave my life to God and asked for strength to go through it. I pled guilty and was given a good outcome but didn’t give anybody up.” Monty says that according to justice he could have received 25 years imprisonment. In that moment he received a fair but merciful, reduced sentence.

In prison, he took the chance to rebuild his faith. “My walk with Jesus has been the most important thing for me.” Monty applied to be part of a program where he could mentor young offenders.  “It was a miracle that I made it to that jail,” he says. In his role, he realised there was no chapel service in the prison. He discussed the dilemma with the prison chaplain, who connected him with Prison Fellowship. Monty was offered the chance to run The Prisoner’s Journey course. 

 “There’s a lot of people you meet in jail who are praying a lot, but it’s like a bargaining system.” It might be surprising to know that prayer is common in prison. Prayer without hope, however, is a dark place to live. 

“You know ‘normal religion’ is complicated with big words. But The Prisoner’s Journey is like story-telling. It makes the gospel simple. Who is Jesus, why did he come, what does it mean for me. We have a heart problem, so grace is a gift you can receive or not.” Monty has loved watching as fellow prisoners begin to understand.

“The week I love is the lesson about grace. I love it when you give the guys a list of who you think can get into heaven [based on their life]. When you come to the answer that none of them are going, they all drop their jaw to the floor! There is nothing you can do to save yourself.” Only grace. 

“Some people can’t believe someone loves them enough to die for them. Many of these people have been betrayed or let down, so to hear someone loves them changes their life. In the last two months, three people here have committed suicide, so when you talk about life and death, we are talking real business. This is the pinnacle, to tell somebody we love them enough to meet with them and talk to them about Jesus. If you are donating you have faith, but you can’t even imagine how life-changing it is for people to receive what you are supporting. God is good, I’m telling you!”  

Go For Gold

“How many camps have you been to?”

“Well I’ve been going since I was 8 years old and I’m 17 now, so it’s been quite a while…”

Couper says he didn’t expect much when he first started going to camp, but it had a lasting impact in his life. 

I asked him the best thing about being on camp. 

“All the support I got,” he said. “Everyone knows why you’re there but not the specifics of what’s going on, so it’s a big safe space.” 

Camp for Kids is designed for children who have one or more parents in prison. It gives kids a chance to get away from ‘normal life’ for a time, and to spend some time with positive role models and other children who understand their situation. 

When asked what was hard about camp, Couper says it is largely the same as the best thing. “Opening up. You’re not sure what other people are going to think, but it’s just a safe space. Especially when I was young, there was a lot of help for me to learn to tell my story. It’s not as hard to talk about anymore. And if you feel comfortable telling your story you can just go for gold!” 

Learning to share and be vulnerable was a big step for Couper, but it helped him to process his situation and family life. 

Now, Couper is a junior leader, and has been on many camps helping kids like him to process their own stories. 

“I enjoy being a leader a little bit more than being a camper. It’s great being a role model for the kids. Last year one of the kids, Toby*, started his first camp saying he hated it and wanted to go home. By the end of camp, he said, ‘oh, I’ll see how I feel about coming on camp next year…’ This year he came back and was much better behaved. When you get kids who are very misbehaved, you notice it on the first day, but by the last day you wouldn’t even recognise them!”

We talked about the donors who make camp possible, and what Couper might say to the people who gave financially towards his camp experiences. 

“You’re doing a huge thing for people who definitely need it. All the kids appreciate it more than anyone understands. They should keep donating, if they can!”

When I asked Couper what the best camp activities are, and any stories he might have, Couper said, “Everything is amazing! Every kid loves the quad bikes, because it’s different to everyday life. The flying fox and giant swing still make me nervous by how high they are, but as a leader you just put on a brave face for the kids and say, ‘it’s not that bad!’”

Now finished high school, Couper is exploring what his future holds. He is planning to study as a personal trainer, and then move into P.E. teaching. 

“I used to think teachers suck and that I would never be a leader and teaching is horrible. But on my last camp everyone was like, ‘You’re so patient with the kids’. I realised I like helping kids. It wasn’t only because of camp, but it did influence my decision.”

*Name has been changed.

Our Impact

Last Time In Prison

Frank* says God brought him back to prison. After meeting God in one of his earlier stints behind bars, Frank showed all the signs of a changed man. But the pressures of life outside found him surrounded by the old temptations of alcohol and other substances. While some people might be discouraged to see Frank back in prison, volunteer Andrew sees a man who has actually taken steps forward. 

“In himself he recognises the change in his life,” Andrew says. “He used to have tattoos across his face that said awful things, but he’s gone and got them lasered off. The other day he lifted up his shirt to proudly show me that now he has ‘Jesus Christ is king’ on one side of his chest and ‘the Word made flesh’ on the other.” 

Andrew knows that often the Christian walk has set-backs and mistakes, but that God’s grace doesn’t waver. He sees Frank’s progress and has hope for his future. 

When asked what excites him about his future with Prison Fellowship, Andrew says he can’t wait to be part of developing more post-release support. “So often these guys say, ‘last time I was in prison…’ I want to jump in that gap. I want them to say, ‘this is the last time I will be in prison’. I’d love to be that support team for them.”

While post-release support has a great deal of challenges, Andrew is excited to see Prison Fellowship grow to be able to facilitate more of such support. 

“I love Prison Fellowship. I have even adopted their statement of faith for myself, and I watch the videos about Chuck Colson every year.” 

Sharing the good news of Jesus in prison has been impactful even for Andrew personally. “I feel equipped in the sense that you always see your weakness and need for God, but I had not even a scrap of fear visiting prison. I didn’t feel I had to learn how to go and mix with a prisoner. I love these guys so much I can’t wait to walk in those doors. I want to show them unjudgemental love, that what they have done doesn’t even come into my mind, and I see them how God sees them. It has made me appreciate even more the wonder of what Jesus did for us. I’ve lived quite a sheltered life, but this has opened my eyes to just how kind and merciful God is.”

Andrew is thankful for donors who support these relationships in prison. “Encourage them,” he says. “I know what it’s like to come to a big month of bills, but God is using Prison Fellowship donors in an amazing way. Keep it up. I am so thankful for Prison Fellowship and who they are, and give God all the praise for that.”

*Name has been changed

You’ll Never Be Alone

“Eight years ago I was a practitioner at a family relationships centre. I used to drive past a women’s prison every day on my way to work. One day while passing the prison, God said to me, ‘there is a connection there.’ I was worried and prayed, ‘no way, I don’t want to be in there, I’ll be really good!’ At this point in time I was unaware of Prison Fellowship.

“Years later, a lady at church shared about Prison Fellowship, and invited me to come to a volunteers’ morning tea. I went and it connected the dots for me and that this was something I needed to do.”

Charnay has now completed three sessions as a facilitator of The Prisoner’s Journey course. She says that when she first went into prison, she wasn’t sure how she would feel. “But I do love people and feel quite a burden for the broken-hearted,” she says. “All I felt for those ladies was love.”

— 

The turning point in Charnay’s own life came fifteen years ago. “I was a single mum of a three-year-old daughter.” Overwhelmed, Charnay turned to a dear friend who encouraged her to seek Jesus. “The Lord strengthened me, and I have become so much closer to him in relationship. Sometimes we make him savior but not Lord, that is, to put him first over everything.” Charnay’s experience of God’s closeness to her has influenced how she speaks with prisoners. 

“When I went in on the first day it was quite incredible. One of the prisoners, Lily*, came to the session but wasn’t saying much at all – only her name when we went around the room. After the video, the Lord prompted me to say, ‘On this journey you’ll get to know Jesus, who he is and why he came. I’d like to say that when we do get to know him and have a relationship with him, you’ll never feel alone.’ Lily just burst into tears and said she had been feeling so lonely. She had been inside for nine months and had not had one visitor. It touched her heart that Jesus doesn’t want her to feel alone.” 

Being new to Prison Fellowship, Charnay is unsure what the future holds. She has done three sessions so far, and says, “I’m just so new. At this stage I’m just enjoying the opportunity to go in and run The Prisoner’s Journey and see how it all goes. I’m excited that there is another course booked for later in the year. [Going to prison] is the day I look forward to more than any other day! It’s a privilege to share God’s Word!” 

*Name has been changed

Tyson’s TPJ Turnaround