"... I was in prison and you came to visit me ..." (Matthew 25: 36b, NIV)
This morning, as part of our Field Education and Ministry course here at SMMS, we went to what is known as the "new" Pietermaritzburg Prison to start the first practical phase of our training for prison ministry.
As I entered the gates of the facility, the first thought that went through my mind was, "right, this is it - this is where the tyre hits the tarmac". And I must confess to having had very mixed feelings as I walked through the door. One part of me - the "grace" part - hoped that the conditions would be decent and humane, in keeping with the right to human dignity. Another part of me - the "law" part - wanted the conditions to be as harsh as humanely possible (forgive me if this sounds like an oxymoron). To be honest, part of me deems it to be unfair that prisoners are granted amenities such as sports facilities, television, study opportunities, etc. when there are many people outside of prison who are deprived of such amenities - particularly the victims of the crimes that the prisoners had committed. But then again, if the aim is to rehabilitate offenders, then one needs to employ such means as part of the rehabilitation programme.
It sure gets confusing at times.
When we went into the maximum security section, I must confess that I was feeling rather claustrophobic, and not just because of the confined space in the corridors. I could not imagine spending 25 years to life in such a place - personally, I didn't feel as though I wanted to spend more than 25 minutes there!
Our first encounter with prisoners was in an open area, where prisoners are allowed a certain amount of time each day for exercise and recreation, and our first task was to introduce ourselves with two of our group being called upon to give a short message. I must say that, contrary to my normal willingness to step forward with a message, I held back this time. As someone coming from the freedom of outside, to which I would shortly be returning, I didn't feel as though I had yet earned the right to stand up within a minute or two of first sight, and immediately begin to preach a message. That will undoubtedly come once relationships and credibility have been established.
Certainly, there is a sense that being imprisoned is a very "in-your-face" experience for the prisoners - over and above the obvious condition of being locked up in a correctional facility. I cannot imagine what it must be like to wear orange fatigues with the words "prisoner" emblazoned thereon - all day, every day. To be honest, being labelled like this, in a manner not too dissimilar to the purple meat grading stamp that is embossed on beef carcasses, would probably drive me insane within a fairly short period.
After my two colleagues had shared a short passage, we were then given the opportunity to interact one-on-one with the prisoners, and it was at this point that a flicker of light began to shine. The young man I spoke to was articulate and quite willing to talk to me, opening up about his background without actually going into the crime he had committed (perhaps they are instructed not to discuss their crimes; we have been instructed not to ask). There was even an element of being "kindred spirits" since we both hailed from Johannesburg. He was quite candid about why he ended up being imprisoned - falling in with the wrong crowd, getting involved in drugs, etc.
But the revelation for me was that he saw prison not as a place of punishment, but as a place of redemption. He admitted openly that had he not been ultimately been arrested and imprisoned at the time he was, his life of drugs and crime would probably have resulted in his death by now. At this point the thought went through my mind: If prison was the "turning point" in this young man's life, what should we as a Church be doing (that we aren't doing now) to be a "place of turning points" in people's lives?
We were then escorted into another room where a group of prisoners had gathered for a church service, normally conducted by a visiting pastor who graciously allowed us to "hijack" the session while our facilitator led with a short lesson based on 1 Corinthians 13:11, in which he exhorted us to leave our childish ways behind (note: not "child-like") and become adults in Christ.
When we bid our farewells and shook hands with the prisoners, one enquired of me where he could make contact with me. Having been forewarned in our classroom sessions that this might happen, I could only respond that our only contact could be when we actually visit the prison itself. Reflecting on how this relates to ministry in an ordinary congregational context, I was once again torn between the need to be available and the need to protect oneself, privacy issues, etc. In a sense it was easier in this case to hide behind the "we're not allowed to" moniker, but this is one of many things that I need to come to terms with.
As we ventured down the corridors on our "long walk to freedom", our spirits began to lift as we sensed that we were about to be freed from our prisons in both a literal and a spiritual sense. This is without a doubt different to anything I have experienced before in ministry. I'm not sure that I'm entirely comfortable at this stage, but then again, much (if not most) of ministry takes us out of our comfort zones.
Returning to the seminary campus was a bit of an anti-climax. Having gone through what was an extremely emotionally taxing and spiritually challenging experience, I would have ideally liked to have gone through some form of "de-briefing" in order to process my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. One of the facilitators, recounting his first visit to prison, indicated that it took him almost a week to find the words to adequately express how the experience had impacted him, and I'm in more or less the same place right now. Still, it's early days yet - hopefully, like anything else in life, it gets a bit easier the more we do it!
It may have been the sampling of that pineapple beer in Standard 8 that resulted in me choosing accountancy as my first career (and not touching alcohol since), but a far stronger Spirit has called me into my second career as I prepare for the exciting journey towards becoming a full-time minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
Being married to my wonderful wife Belinda, and having been blessed with an amazing son, James, is living proof that accountants DO have a personality. (Or maybe Belinda just felt sorry for me, perhaps?)
Judging by the blogs of Dion Forster, Wessel Bentley, and others, it looks like being able to blog is one of the requirements for being a minister (!), so here goes...