13 December 2017

Finding freedom behind bars

“You know, I’m more free here in prison now I’m a Christian than I ever was running about on the outside.”

The place was Hydebank Wood women’s prison; the occasion was Prison Fellowship’s weekly Bible study; the speaker a long term prisoner. She is one of many – the Lord knows exactly how many – who have found true freedom in Him in the solitude of a prison cell.

For more than 30 years Prison Fellowship has served the Northern Ireland community, endeavouring to bring hope to all who have been distressed by a prison sentence: the offender, the exoffender, the family. It is a ministry of transformation and reconciliation. In the words of Ron Nikkel, President of Prison Fellowship International: “Reconciliation is not just our message – it is our mission and our lifestyle. Reconciliation is evidenced by our unity in Jesus Christ and through love that cannot be blocked by prison bars or human barriers. We seek to proclaim and demonstrate the reconciling love and transforming power of Jesus Christ for all people.” And it was Jesus Himself who commanded, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”

“Rainbow” spent much of his youth in juvenile centres and the young offenders’ prison. Now he is free in Christ. A former alcoholic and street sleeper, Rainbow recently called into the PF Centre in Belfast’s University Street and proudly announced he had been off alcohol for eight years and off cigarettes for three. He wanted to thank us for the support and help he’d received. Today he has his own accommodation, has joined a local fellowship, is slowly building up a circle of friends and making a positive impact in the lives of a small group of needy people in his own community. This is a massive achievement for a man who knew little affection as a child and who cannot read or write.

Perhaps readers would like to know how a man can drift into offending and find himself in despair behind prison bars. Here is Samuel’s story in his own words.

SAMUEL’S STORY – AMAZING GRACE

“Growing up in the Shankill area of Belfast, at 16 I realised my dream: I joined the Royal Navy. Two and a half years later I was thrown out. They had had enough of my drinking and trouble-making. Around this time my parents’ marriage fell apart and the loving, home-making mother I adored changed completely to a woman who lived only for the weekend and drink. What was life all about anyway?

In the shady world of the paramilitaries I seemed to find the acceptance I craved. Fortunately what I did for them was limited, but it was enough to take me to prison.

LIFE IN ‘THE CRUM’ AND THE MAZE

After 12 months awaiting trial in Crumlin Road Prison, I was sentenced and met a new cell-mate. Andy was saved and he spoke to me about the need of salvation. I thought he was a head case! At bedtime that night he started to pray … out loud! “Lord, I want you to put your hand on Samuel here and show him the error of his ways.” The next day we were taken to the Maze and Andy sang choruses the whole way! What a head case!

In the prison education block two of my tutors were lovely Christians and they talked to me about Jesus. Lying in bed one  night, smoking dope, I felt compelled to read the Bible and opened it at random.

‘Who so loveth instruction loveth knowledge, but he that hateth reproof is brutish’ (Proverbs 12:1).  The words hit me hard! From there I read right through to the end of Proverbs, then went back to the start and read it through to Chapter 11 again. Unbelievably, my whole life was here. Running with the men of violence, the foolishness of alcohol, sexual immorality, bringing shame on my parents, shedding innocent blood – all of it was here. Through that night, fear and confusion grew until I turned to Proverbs again, and then the reality of the true living God really dawned upon me. I knew I desperately needed mercy, but I also knew I would find it! On my knees I prayed, “God, forgive me, and come into my heart,” and He did! Hallelujah! I was saved and I found acceptance. Although I didn’t understand it then, I was indeed accepted for all eternity.

Eventually, sickened with the internal squabbling and back-biting, I asked to be moved off the paramilitary wings of the Maze.

NEW LIFE IN JESUS

Now prison life was not the same: I had a peace I never knew existed – Christ Himself was my peace and my joy. I gave up the dope. In the closing months of my sentence I met Robin Scott from Prison Fellowship. Never judgemental, he was genuinely concerned for prisoners. Then a volunteer with PF, he is now the longestserving Director the organisation has had.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

Free at last! But there was no crowd of mates and back-slapping for me at the prison gate. Just one person waited for me there: John, a PF volunteer. I needed shoes and kindly he took me to a shop. Overwhelmed by the vast choice in the shoe shop, I ended up leaving empty handed. I discovered that a lot had changed in 8ó years! (Making everyday decisions is a big hurdle for most longterm prisoners on release). Even buying bread: in 1984 I went to the corner shop and bought a Mother’s Pride loaf. By 1993, croissants and bagels had arrived!

In my own flat budgeting was hard. Christian friends tried to advise me but I resented their advice because of years of being ordered around in prison. I expressed my desire to be baptised but was infuriated that they wanted to interview me first. Paramilitaries, police and prison authorities had all ‘interviewed’ me – was this another ‘prison’ with new restrictions? In a temper I stormed off.

After that I quickly sank back, deep into the pit of sin that the Lord had so mercifully lifted me from. I didn’t want to run away from Him but I was put off by the Christianity I had witnessed. Yet the sinfulness made me so miserable and I struggled to get out of the mess. During this time, sadly, I felt the unforgiving attitude of many Christians. Even at meetings folk turned away from me.

REAL LIFE

Thankfully, some Christians did help me to turn back to the Saviour. Later I had the joy of leading the ex-prisoners’ weekly Bible study at Prison Fellowship. The reality of this life in Christ consumes me, even to this day. I have been out of prison over 20 years now. It has not been easy but my Lord and Saviour has been so patient with me, showing me much love and mercy – and amazing grace.”

On 24 March 2012 friends of PFNI gathered at Glenmachan Church of God to celebrate the faithfulness and guidance of God through 30 years of ministry. The audience of around 550 was captivated by the testimony of Kim Phuc, “The Girl in the Picture”, that photograph of 1972 that drew the world’s attention to the horrors of the war in Vietnam. Through words and DVD clips Kim told her story of the pain, anguish and despair and yet her journey also brought her to faith in Christ in 1982. God enabled her, through time, to choose freedom from bitterness and hatred and to forgive those who had ordered the napalm bombing of her village. Her message: the power of faith and pardon is stronger than that of war and bombing.

Robin Scott