“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.”
Hebrews 13: 3
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day at the religious center of the Mangaung Correctional Center here in Bloemfontein. The Mangaung Correctional Center is a maximum security prison and the second largest private prison in the world. A few months ago I was given a tour of the facility, which I blogged about here: http://andrewsteelesa.blogspot.com/2011/03/beyond-prison-wall.html
But on my recent visit, I spent the day in the religious center of the prison. Within five minutes of arriving, I was brought to a general Christian bible study where 15 men were singing before starting the bible study. I was shown my seat and left alone with the inmates in a classroom-type atmosphere. After the singing was done and some prayers were said, I was asked to come to the front and talk about myself and share some scripture. When I asked how much time I had, they said, “You have about 20 minutes.” Ha! I almost fell over as I did not anticipate having to give such a talk. But, as many situations this past year have taught me, I had to think on my feet and make the best of it. So I got up in front of them and basically gave a sermon. Giving a sermon to my congregation in South Africa was hard enough, but I really had no idea how to preach to maximum security inmates. However, the Holy Spirit must have grabbed a hold of me because before I knew it, my 20 minutes were up and I was receiving many smiles, “Amens”, and “Hallelujahs.”
My second session of the day was another bible study, this time for the Assemblies of God. This time there were over 30 inmates in attendance, and I was much more of an observer this time. However, towards the end I was again invited to the front to share some of my story. They treated me like a guest in their home, and were every courteous the entire time. The leader of the bible study said towards the end, “Brother Andrew, know that you are family here and your family will always be ours. We are all family in Christ.” These were powerful words, especially coming from a man such as him. After the bible study had ended, every inmate came and shook my hand and thanked me with “God bless,” as they left the room. It wasn’t until after everyone had exited the room that I remembered I was in a maximum security prison. The hands I just shook have killed, raped, and robbed other human beings. These were the most dangerous men in South Africa. But none of that seemed to hit me, not when the Holy Spirit was so strong in each of them.
In the afternoon I observed a Zionist Apostolic worship service held outdoors. This is a religion that combines Christianity with traditional, ancestral beliefs. There was a large traditional drum, lit candles, and an object made of various string, rope and wool hanging above the candles. The men would occasionally dance and spin around the candles when singing was going on. It was fascinating to observe such a service, so unlike anything we have back home in the States. And as the service went on, they tried to translate into English to accommodate me. They didn’t have to do this, but they did. Towards the end of the service, one of the inmates who was translating into English came up to me and started talking with me. He explained to me what was happening in the service, the history of their church and what the leaders wished for me to know. He continued to come and assist me in following the service. He showed me some of their documents, which showed that they were recognized as an independent church and registered with the national church. It was amazing to see how these inmates had created their own church and gone so far as to register it officially.
The singing was beautiful, and I couldn’t help but tap my foot and clap my hands. There was such passion in the voices of the men who preached, and so much enthusiasm for God in their bodies. As the service came closer to an end, the same inmate who had been helping me had a conversation with me that I’ll never forget. He asked where I was from, where in South Africa I’ve been, and other basic questions. He then started to talk about his life in prison. He told me that most of the inmates worshiping there had found God once inside the prison. That he, along with the others, lived lives “on the outside” they were ashamed of. He spoke eloquently of how they have changed and become new people. He assured me that if and when he would be out, he would live a life with God as its central point. After exchanging more words and dialogue, we stood up and embraced each other. Here I was, hugging a man who has created such a horrific crime that he is in a maximum security prison. But we shared the love of Christ and it was so strong that I was never afraid. As the service was winding down, we said our goodbyes and he leaned over and said, “I want to leave you with some scripture. Please don’t ever forget it. Jeremiah 29: 11-12.” I quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper. When I got home that night, the first thing I did was look up the verses I was told by the inmate.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come pray to me, I will hear you.”
Jeremiah 29: 11-12
I sat there dumbfounded by the day I had just experienced. I had spent the day with some of the worst sinners on Earth. But these men are humans, and their remorse and dedication to their faith was inspiring. It was one of the most spiritually fulfilling days of my life. I could feel the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit amongst the prisoners. I could see how their lives were no longer surrounding crime, but now surrounding God. For people who are forever judged by others, they still welcomed me with warm hospitality. It is fair to say that Jesus is behind bars. He lives in each and every one of the inmates in the prison. He is the strength they receive each morning to wake up and the peace they need to sleep at night. I pray that God’s grace will shower the inmates with the peace, comfort and repentance that they will need. I will always have the memories of the bible studies and services from that day. And I will never forget two verses in the book of Jeremiah that, for some, is the hope and strength to live each and every day.