I have been to lots of different churches, from high churches dripping with opulence and finery to churches that simply meet behind metal shutters for the destitute and prostitutes, and churches in Africa that simply meet under a tree with no building in sight. I had never been to a church in a prison before – until last week.
One of the Prison Officers must have noticed my wide eyes trying to acclimatise to my new surroundings and asked “Is it your first time?”
“The first time I’ll be meeting the prisoners” I replied.
He laughed, “Well, it’ll probably be your last!”
I reassured myself that he must have had a bad shift, or the system had probably ground him down. My excitement still outweighed my nervousness but I had no idea what to expect.
The church soon began to fill up, much like any other church, from the back seats first! There were seasoned church-goers who reassured me that the service ‘was alright’ and some that have never stepped foot in a church before so were probably even more intrigued than me! Some were very candid about their reason for going to church admitting it just got them out of their cell. However, regardless of their motives, and despite being marched in under Officer escort, all the men were there of their own free will.
The congregation was a mixed bag. (Just as they all should be!) There were men who had ‘vulnerable’ written all over them and had probably been victims themselves far longer than their sentence prescribed. Some clearly had learning disabilities or special needs even before getting beyond a hand shake and pleasantries. However, most of them were Mr Average, representing any selection of young men randomly picked from the streets.
I didn’t ask anything about their crimes or sentences as I wanted it to be a meeting of person to person, not insider to outsider. However, the institution and deference was undeniably ingrained. It’s been a long time since I’ve been referred to as “Miss!”
The service itself was unremarkable in many ways apart from the fact that there was no collection plate that was passed round! The Chaplain had their attention and respect and it all passed without incident. It wasn’t until the prayers that I was reminded where I was with the usual intercessions studded with requests for early release dates, tagging and for loved ones to visit.
The customary invitation to come and find out more really blew me away. I had barely got to my feet before a young man asked if he could pray for someone that he had hurt. He was nervous because he didn’t know how to pray. It was the shortest, simplest prayer yet was overflowing in sincerity and depth. I was really moved and it was such a privilege to be able to pray with him. He, like others, were hungry for a better life and were intrigued who this Jesus was. Three of them asked if they could have a Bible. As I glanced round the room all the other leaders and volunteers were also engaged in conversation or prayer with the prisoners.
My heart sank as cell block numbers got shouted out. Time in prison, for me at least, had gone too quickly. There was no time to wrap conversations up, our time was done and they were promptly escorted back to their cells.
I’m not sure how the men felt as they went back to their cells but I went home feeling challenged. Their hunger to find out more has fed my appetite to help them discover who they really are in Gods eyes, not the worlds. From that perspective, things can get really exciting. I’m not sure where things will go from here but I know the Prison Officer was wrong, it definitely won’t be my last…