The Margins: Traversing the lines that divide

The margins of society.

It’s a term often used to identify the space in which prisoners find themselves. Separated, divided, apart from others. Usually the margins are not crossed over, and when they are traversed it is only in isolated circumstances.

I’ve been working with Prison Fellowship and entering prisons for 5 years. Prison ministry is one of the most challenging spaces I have ever worked in, and that has nothing to do with the inmates. Prison is a place where the rules can change at any moment and often without explanation. It can be a challenging and discouraging environment.

Yet, prison ministry is also full of surprising moments of encouragement. Recently, while running Change on the Inside with the 10 inmates who had requested to take part, I was suddenly and unexpectedly encouraged. We were coming to the final session for the day when some of the comments just seemed to make it all worth it.

“We really appreciate you coming in and being so vulnerable with us, letting us see that you have the same struggles as us. The other guys that come in behave high and mighty, but you really show us you care.”  

Although it was Jason* who spoke the words, some of the others around the room nodded in agreement and later expressed deep gratitude to us.

As a State Manager I go to great lengths to let the guys in prison know that the men and women who visit them are volunteers. They are doing what they do because they care for them. They want to be in the ‘space’ and spend time engaging. They want to traverse that line and be there in the margins with them.

The longer I am part of this ministry, the more I want my friends, family, and the wider Church to visit prison with me so they too can see there is nothing to fear. To see that there are beautiful men and women who are discarded and forgotten by society, many of whom long for real change in their lives. And who, like all people on either side of the margin line, find self-worth in knowing they are loved and cared for.

It reminds me that our volunteers in prisons are somewhat like the kindly harvester and the sheaves of wheat spoken of in Ruth 2:2-4.

“One day Ruth, the Moabite foreigner, said to Naomi, ‘I’m going to work; I’m going out to glean among the sheaves, following after some harvester who will treat me kindly.’ Naomi said, ‘Go ahead, dear daughter.’ And so she set out. She went and started gleaning in a field, following in the wake of the harvesters.”

Ruth was anticipating that she would find wheat that the harvester had left along the margins of the field, as was the requirement of the Law. But she was hoping to encounter an abundance that was even more than the required amount, so that she and her mother-in-law, Naomi, could eat. Both being widows they were struggling to survive.

In the same way, prisoners enter our rooms expecting to perhaps, at minimum, encounter some meaningful engagement with those from the other side of the margin. 

These women didn’t just find the added generosity of abundance in the margins that day; their lives were changed forever through an encounter with Boaz, the owner of the fields. I know that the same can happen in the lives of inmates as they encounter the abundance of God’s love when expressed through volunteers who go into the margins.

Lives are changed forever through these encounters – and that is our constant prayer at Prison Fellowship Australia, that more people step into the abundance of the margin experience of  being a volunteer.

Ian Townsend  
State Manager SA and NT

*Names have been changed

A Transformed Life: How finding a Bible in prison transformed Michael

I’ve been volunteering with Prison Fellowship since 2017 and as an assistant chaplain since 2021. I’ve had a wonderful time working with the team here! I consider it an incredible opportunity to be part of a world-wide team that is so well-established and well-organised. 


It’s a very rewarding experience, working in prisons. The inmates who attend our chapel services are so encouraged to have the chance to fellowship and worship with other Christians. Each time they hear the Word of God, their desire to learn continues to grow – It’s very moving and energising for us as volunteers!


Phil (left) with David Berry, Daniel Tetteh, and Victor Rao in Darwin


I’ve seen many inmates give their life to God over the years. One man in particular, Michael*, is from one of the Northern Territory islands. I met him many years ago in the community, and a few years later he found himself in prison. Michael began attending our chapel services each Saturday in the prison.


One day after Saturday chapel, I asked him what kept him coming to the services, and he replied, “Well, Phil, I came to prison not having anything to read. I looked and looked for something to read, and I only ever found a Bible. So, I began to read it. And I read and I read, and it began to change my heart. Over time it also began to change my life.” 


We began to see that something in Michael was different. And a few weeks later after one of our church services, he called me aside. His face glowed with relief and peace as he told me, “Phil, I had a visit from my wife this week and she said that she had forgiven me.” He had already been transformed by God’s forgiveness, and now he had been forgiven by his wife! 


When Michael finished his sentence he moved back home and helped to establish a local secondary school. More recently, Michael is a visiting elder to the prison in Darwin – he’s very well-respected in the prison. 


There’s nothing like speaking to people who are desperate to hear what you’re saying. When we tell the stories of Jesus, you can see the guys connect with them. When you’re talking to these guys, they really want to hear what you’ve got to say. That’s a real blessing. Volunteering in prisons has been one of the highlights of my life!


The Lord bless you for your service.


Former prison chaplain and State Advisory Council member, SA/NT


After 5 years with Prison Fellowship, Phil is stepping down from his role to care for his wife. Phil joined the team as we were establishing a presence in the Darwin Correctional Centre for the first time, and it was God’s perfect timing. We will see Phil’s influence on our work for many years to come as he has helped so much in establishing the tone of care and love that the team has in that place. We will miss his gentle spirit and wisdom. It is our prayer that both Phil and Dorothy enjoy the pleasures that the NT provides in their retirement. – Ian Townsend 


*Names have been changed



The Central Hope

Songwriting, Faith & Sharing

Stories of Hope

Back in Prison

Highs and Lows

Don’t Waste A Moment

As he walks off the plane, down the walkway, and into the terminal, Ian knows he is a long way from home. When he left Adelaide three hours ago, it was cold and rainy. He breathes in the air, heavy with heat, and makes his way out of the Darwin airport to his car.

Ian Townsend is the Adelaide-based State Manager for South Australia and the Northern Territory, and is overwhelmed by the sense of peace he feels in both remarkably contrasting locations. “I don’t know if it’s because Darwin is becoming familiar, a bit like a second home, or the opportunity to enjoy a very different environment, but a peace comes over me as I drive down these (now!) familiar roads,” he said. “There is beautiful scenery, a lack of people, and I know the outback isn’t far away. That conjures a lot of peace for me.”

The next day, Ian is offered the chance to preach in the Darwin Correctional Centre. “During the worship time and leading up to the message, the [inmates] are talking to each other and messing around a little, but the moment I start to preach God’s word, a peace fills the room.” Some of these men may have waited three months to attend a church service, so when God’s word is spoken, they choose not to waste a moment. Their full attention is on Ian during his whole sermon.

Prison Fellowship has an amazing opportunity to provide regular church services in Darwin prison, and to allow inmates to experience God’s love and peace, even if for only a short time. In John 16:33, Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Ian Townsend, SA/NT State Manager


Enid’s alarm rings at 5.30am every Saturday morning. She drives through the dark of the Alice Springs morning to the Visitor Centre of the prison. Saturday is visitor day and 88-year-old Enid wants to be sure that when families arrive, they are welcomed with a smile and helping hands. There is much paperwork and administration that needs to be conducted before the families are permitted to enter the prison and it is the Prison Fellowship volunteers who assist with this work.

“Mainly I help people,” Enid says. “I am there to be of assistance, be a friend and most of all do the administrative work for their visit.

“The Visitor Centre is always full of people and noisy children, but we get through. I am so very busy getting everyone written up for each appointment that there is rarely ever time for even a lunch break. Once one appointment has gone in, it’s head down getting the next (group) in.”

The prison environment is, naturally, alien to many, and quite overwhelming for children. Prison Fellowship volunteers are there to provide emotional support and sort out any challenges that families may encounter when visiting loved ones. A majority of the families are visitors to  Alice Springs from remote communities and are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Given that they may live in hot and dry conditions, they often arrive with nothing on their feet. Without footwear you are not permitted to enter the prison, so as an additional ministry, Enid and the team provide  thongs for those with nothing on their feet.  

Over and above the support families receive in the Visitors Centre, Prison Fellowship provides a bus service which picks people up from the Alice Springs CBD and travels to the Correctional Centre some 25 kms out of town. In 2018/19, 1877 loved ones travelled on that bus which operates every weekend of the year.

It’s amazing the work that a small team of dedicated workers can achieve. A lot of that comes from the devotion that Enid has given for more than two decades, ensuring that each weekend the bus was able to run and that she is at the other end waiting for them.  

– Ian Townsend, SA/NT State Manager