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.”
Yvonne Smuts – Staff Writer
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
“The first time we got to run the [Change on the Inside] course was November last year. That was probably fourteen months after I first applied!” By necessity, Clyde* had to learn a lot about patience when volunteering in prison. “Of course, it’s worth the wait,” he says. “One doesn’t do this training and then put it on the shelf. I’m just pleased to help out when these things finally come together.”
Ian Townsend, SA/NT State Manager, created a prospectus of Prison Fellowship’s programs to present at each South Australian prison. “A number of prisons were interested in SLAM [sports programs] but I couldn’t find enough players at the time!” says Ian. “But one prison did put up their hand for Change on the Inside.” Over the next nine months, Ian discussed with the program coordinator about the logistics of running the course. Once it was approved, they found a space and timeslot that was convenient for the prison, and have now run four courses!
Having been part of all four courses, Clyde shares about his journey as a volunteer. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time,” he says, but commends the accessibility of the course for inmates. “There are two things that engage well [with the prisoners]. One is that we are not paid staff. We choose to be there, and we aren’t preaching at them. The other is that stories and humour make the more serious points easier to receive.”
The team are excited to see small but steady growth in this program. “It is an opportunity to put something meaningful before the prisoners,” says Clyde. Watching inmates explore what they would do differently if they had their time over, and what they would do differently in the future as a result of the course, has been very rewarding.
Ian says the prison has been eager to have Change on the Inside running, and he is confident of the impact it is having. “It is getting a good wrap. The prison’s core business is making sure the prisoners are safe, that they don’t run away, and they are fed and showered. After that comes rehabilitation.” Ian values the work prison staff do and understands their high workload. Patience has been crucial, and has paid off in promoting a positive relationship between Prison Fellowship and the prison. We never take this for granted!
Ian Townsend, SA/NT State Manager
What’s the highlight of your week? Is it that coffee in your hand? Is it sitting in front of the TV watching your football team play at their best? Or is it picking your grandchildren up from child care and having them give you a cuddle that will stay with you for the next week? Maybe it’s as simple as enjoying the sunshine on your face.
Unfortunately for many of the men and women in Australian prisons they have little to look forward to. Prison may mean spending most of their day in their cell with little natural light – just four walls to keep them company. One of the ways that Prison Fellowship adds colour to inmates’ lives is through a program called Art From Inside. This year, South Australia introduced its first such program. Art From Inside encourages inmates to use their creativity to produce works that express who they are and what they are going through.
Despite only having permission to use standard HB grey pencils at this stage, Prison Fellowship volunteers run these classes once a fortnight and have been received enthusiastically by the inmates.
The classes are simple with a focus on drawing and sketching. Our art teacher brings in different pictures inmates can use as a guide. Many of the guys who attend have been “inside” for a long time and will remain in prison for months or years to come, so attending this 2-hour session once a fortnight has become a highlight. Although still not using colour pencils, it brings colour into these men’s lives.
– Ian Townsend, SA/NT State Manager