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



Sowing Seeds — Restoration doesn’t always happen all at once. Sometimes all we can do is faithfully sow the seeds and patiently wait for them to grow.

The Central Hope

Essential Provision

The suburban streets of Adelaide are deserted and cold, and the shrivelled brown leaves blowing around April’s* feet are not recognisable as those which just a few weeks ago had set the trees on fire with their vibrant oranges and reds. She trudges along, backpack weighing her down as she executes the lockdown routine she has established: walking within the 2.5km allowed for exercise, while buying her ‘essentials’ at the same time. She is aware that not everything she carries in her backpack is ‘essential’, and smiles at what seems like a small victory.

April is employed part-time in administrative work, and also has a role as a volunteer for Prison Fellowship Australia. As she ambles down the street, the ongoing sense of heaviness seems to lurk just below the surface, and now manifests as she reflects on a world not only reeling from a relentless infectious disease, but from floods and fires, hunger and poverty, war and cruelty, greed and an insatiable pursuit of power. A world that is suffering and in pain; a world that in many ways is grappling with the unknown and the unprecedented; a world that is divided and separated, desperately hurting, desperately trying to stay connected.

This hope of staying connected gives a brief glimpse into the lives of those in prison; those separated and set apart from the rest of society because they have broken the law. But they are not really separated, because they are now thrust into ‘communities’ of fellow inmates, where having broken the law may be the only thing that the ‘inside community’ has in common, and they remain on the outside even though they are inside.

April ponders the mutual experience of ‘separation’ for those inside and outside of prison. The common pain and grief of not being allowed at the bedside of a dying loved one; of not being there for the birth of a child; of not seeing an ageing grandparent; of not being present. The overwhelming thought that life, as it was, may never be regained seems very real here on the outside, in this hurting world. April asks, “Lord, what can be done for this common humanity, who is divided and separated? What is there that is not transient and momentary, often motivated by token, superficial gestures? The ‘let me know if I can do anything for you’ which has no real substance, or intention, or investment?”

She reflects on the true motivations of her own heart as a volunteer visiting inmates in prison.

The trudging continues, and with it comes the regret, just a small regret mind you, about the weight of too many ‘non-essentials’ in her backpack. But April is spurred on by the transient gratification they will bring when she gets home. ‘So what do You want right now Lord, in the midst of all this? In the midst of the helplessness, and the uncertainty, and the loss of hope, and the grief. What do You want?’ 

The words in her head are almost defiant.

And unlike the cold wind blowing around her, the reply that seems to come is like a warm, gentle breeze: ‘What I have always wanted, for each and every one of My Beloved; to come to Me, and walk with Me, and talk with Me.’

She straightens up. Her backpack does not seem so heavy now. She smiles as she basks in the reassurance of knowing that if this is the heart of the Creator God, then He will provide. And it is not over the hurting, burdened world that she must ruminate; she must just be ready for the God-syncronised encounters to authentically share His Heart, one person at a time, inside or out. 

Bringing the assurance of community with other believers, and a relationship with God, from which one can never be separated.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Yvonne Smuts – Staff Writer 

*Name Changed


The Circuit Breaker

As we sit sipping our drinks in the noisy coffee shop, I am intrigued by Julie’s eyes. Intelligent and enquiring, there is an elusive look that speaks of life and all the associated experiences – expected as well as unanticipated – that come our way on this journey. The threads of joy and of pain; of hope and loss; threads that make up the fabric of life. Julie is a new donor to Prison Fellowship, and was glad to meet with me and chat over a coffee and get to know the ministry.

Straining above the loud chatter around us, it becomes apparent as Julie talks, that she has been impacted by the prevalence in the news lately of the tragedy of many people worldwide who have died while in custody. Julie had been left with a profound sense of disillusionment coupled with powerlessness to make any meaningful impact. She has always been acutely aware of the devastating impact of the effects of ‘the cards that some people have been dealt’ in life.

“The deck is not always fairly stacked,” Julie says softly, and her heart of compassion is evident as she goes on to speak of a man from her church who displays the impact of clearly having ‘done it rough’ in his past.

It was while attending her church one Sunday that Julie had noticed a Prison Fellowship brochure pinned to the notice board and had felt compelled to remove it and take it home to find out more. As she read through the edition of Set Free, she had been moved by the stories of the lives of people incarcerated and paying the consequences of their decisions. But with this came a new awareness; the realization that although they were confined to prison now, the stories of these inmates spoke of the paradox of a sense of freedom while being confined to prison. 

A freedom which they had never experienced before. 

As we sip our coffees, Julie reflects on her own life; on her own spiritual journey, one which for a long time was nothing more than religious formality. In many ways, its own kind of prison.

She shares her own life-changing experience of an unmistakeable encounter that came with comprehending the truth that she was truly loved by Jesus; valued by Him; treasured by Him. “I discovered that Jesus loves me and everything else is peripheral. He is the ‘core business’”, she says. She speaks of the painful ways in her life that she had been made to feel ‘less than’, living with coercive controlling lies that implied ‘you will never be good enough’. Lies that were exposed on the day she encountered for the first time the compassion, patience and love of Christ that said, “You are loved enough that I would die for you.”

The circuit breaker.

Julie explains that on reading that Prison Fellowship magazine, she no longer felt powerless to address the inequity of the lives of those who perhaps have been victims themselves through life circumstances. A reality which very few who having grown up in a privileged environment, can authentically identify with.

She knows from her experience that the Christ of Isaiah 53, Who although perfect, said not a word when unjustly accused and condemned, is the voice for each of us. “If He can change me and give me a voice, He can change the lives of those who have ended up in prison.  But they need to hear about Him. We need to be empowering those in prison to hear this message. It is the only lasting and effective way of breaking the destructive, imprisoning, repetitive circuit that just keeps going round and round.”

She had pinned the notice back on the church notice board the following week … and knew her way forward to make a difference.

Julie is now an ongoing ChainBreaker donor and also gives support for various other programs, as she is led. She knows the meaning of ‘my chains are gone I’ve been set free’ in her own life. She is determined to be a part of making this a possibility for those on the inside and breaking the circuit of reoffending.

A possibility for all who hear the message of the boundless redeeming love of Christ.

As we prepare to leave the coffee shop, I am again struck by Julie’s eyes. And I now realize that reflected there, is in fact the irrepressible essence, of hope.

 Yvonne Smuts – Staff Writer

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