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A letter from Eric and Becky Hinderliter in Lithuania

March 9, 2009


When we entered mission service with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2001, Becky and I attended several weeks of training and orientation with our mission colleagues. We were not sure what to expect. The sessions were designed to give us the best thinking about what mission means in the 21st century. New mission metaphors were introduced — sending and returning, gift exchange, mutuality, self-awareness and being “one-down,” not in control. One of the trainers, Anthony Gittins, a Catholic priest and Christian writer, made a lasting impression. His book, Ministry at the Margins (2002), still resonates with us as we pray about our mission here in Lithuania and to the countries to the east. Gittins tells us to see gifts, to recognize the gifts we have been given by God and to see as well the gifts of others we encounter, gifts these others will share with us. We say that we teach with our lives — but we’re also students. Our students watch us very carefully for clues about who we really are, about why we have been sent to be part of their lives, and about what our Christian faith actually means for our daily living. With a line from the poet Robert Burns, Gittins tells us to pray, “God give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.” Here’s a story one of our students, a young woman from Belarus, wrote for the school newspaper recently.

The prison lessons
By Elvira Bakhar,

This article was inspired by an interview conducted with Becky and Eric Hinderliter, Lithuanian Christian College professors. The original intention was to learn about their monthly visits to a correction facilty in Pravieniškės. It took me by surprise that even in this case the one giving is often the one that learns a lesson of value.

Photo of a large, dark blue, rectangular sign in Lithuanian.

The sign at the entrance to the prison in Pravieniškės, which is in a small village. The words are of Russian origin, meaning “Those who are blamed” — referring to the Lithuanian nationalist rebels who were first imprisoned there when it was built in 1863.

There are 7,500 prisoners in Lithuania, 1,200 men at the facility where Becky and Eric teach, a place that once was a czarist prison. Young to middle-aged adults, they are deprived of freedom both short- and long-term. About one third of them work at a local furniture factory, the rest try to find something to do in order not to lose sanity — read books from the library, newspapers, watch TV or socialize. The most obedient and persistent can earn the privilege to attend classes.

Eric and Becky started visiting the facility in 2005, and have been following their commitment to visit and teach there once a month. Eric teaches English to a group of four or five people, depending on their behavior prior to class, and Becky teaches accounting individually, as there are some distance program university students at the facility. However, Becky said that the reason for their trips there is more than teaching — it is being available for conversation. In fact, it is mostly listening and attention those men need. It is a challenge to listen without asking questions, and, moreover, it is truly a challenge not to judge.

Photo of a tall stone cross. In the background are trees, buildings and a bright blue sky.

A memorial cross outside the gates of the prison.

"They have been judged and questioned enough,” Eric emphasized several times, “and we just start with the reality that they are there.” Eric and Becky said that the story of the prodigal son has taught them to ignore the desire to calculate, analyze and judge and instead to see in those men brothers who have been away and come back.

Eric pointed out that it is a very judging society we live in. When released, those men are going to see nothing they had imagined: society is very unforgiving, and the men actually have a chance to find themselves back in prison. Nobody wants to be abandoned, so it is crucially important to show genuine care and interest. It is difficult to imagine, but in some prisoners’ cases, people like Eric and Becky are the highlight of the entire experience of being in jail and give reasons for hope.

“The place is very stressful,” Becky and Eric agreed, “and the classes are emotionally draining in ways we have never experienced before.” Granted that these people don’t have much to do, they are great readers and thus are very well informed. Yet, they are clearly aware of everything they are missing out on: they would rather be coping with the economic crisis than be in windowless dormitory surrounded by walls and have no way of experiencing life. “This place and these people have proved to us that we are taking freedom for granted,” Eric said, “and the exercise of walking in and out of the facility has taught me how to be released.”

Even though Lithuanian prisons are becoming more of rehabilitation than punishment facilities, the pressure of the conditions is inevitable, and the pressure of the society is inescapable, too. Yet, prisoners manage to be humorous about their situation and hope for the light at the end of the tunnel. They also want to give: Becky mentioned that there is a store available during certain time at the facility, so those making and having money have real-world temptations to spend it on. Still, prisoners gathered personal money and put up a Christmas program for kids at a local school; they even bought little presents. They express care for others, and they appreciate being cared for.

Those men are locked in a dormitory that looks like an unfixed Karklu [one of the student dormitories at LCC] for something they have done wrong, and they can’t leave the place for years. No doubt, they hope to be forgiven and given another chance when released. What Eric and Becky learned from this and were willing to share is that by refraining from judgment, we create a new world for those who have been wrong and open the world of opportunities for them. On the other hand, those who have been wrong can teach us useful lessons, like appreciating and valuing freedom.

Friends, we are Easter people. Two criminals play a role in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. One was angry and accused Jesus of indifference. The other knew his fate and how hopeless was his plight. But he had the faith to ask for mercy, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43 NRSV). Lessons abound where we least expect them. Friends, may we all have the faith to ask for mercy. God’s gracious love grants us mercy.

Grace and peace to all of you in this Lenten season,

Eric and Becky Hinderliter

The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 178


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