An inspiration for ministry: ‘I was in prison and you visited me’
March 22, 2020
LILONGWE, Malawi — If you were to visit Maula Prison, built on a hill in the capital city of Lilongwe, Malawi, you might notice that it feels outdoorsy and open. There are multiple layers of fences, but in between them is open, undeveloped space. The lack of shrubs and low trees allows clear sight for a long distance.
During visiting hours, you may also notice large numbers of people lining the inside fences. After visitors have navigated the front gate and walked the hundred yards or so to the fence surrounding the main yard and cell blocks, they spread along the fence to talk to the inmate they are visiting. The fence is double-layered, with a few feet in between serving as a pathway. On the other side of the fence opposite the pathway the inmates spread out, shouting to their visitors so they can be heard over the wind, traffic and other people. That is the closest they seem to get to a private visit during incarceration: a shouted conversation through two fences and across an open pathway, with other visitors and inmates nearby.
Last spring a weeklong training of trauma healing group facilitators attracted people from various denominations across the city and surrounding area. The Rev. Wickliff Kang’ombe Zulu, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Nkhoma Synod prison chaplain, used his own money to attend.
Trauma Healing International has a clear pathway for people to become facilitators of a trauma healing group. First, they must attend a facilitator training session, like the one Zulu and I attended in April. Completing this initial training provides apprentice facilitator status, which is valid for two years. To become a full trauma healing group facilitator, each apprentice must attend an advance training, which Zulu and I completed in November.
Zulu and I worked hard to facilitate two groups together. At Kachere Youth Prison in Lilongwe, we met with nine young men. At Maula Prison, about 30 men attended.
The trauma healing program progresses through an understanding of God, suffering and evil, to teach about grief and how to grieve well, so we can heal. The program culminates with lessons on forgiveness and bringing our pain to the cross for Christ’s healing.
Both groups said the biggest impact for them was the concept of forgiveness. One youth said, “If I had known how to forgive, I wouldn’t have done the things that got me here.” Many of the men at Maula said, “Because I’m here, I am very bitter, and now I know I need to forgive in order to let that go.” In many ways everyone found the need to forgive and to be forgiven to be the most important and most healing aspect of the group. Whatever the circumstances that resulted in the men being in prison, a wrong had occurred. Whether it was a wrong they had done to someone else, or a wrong committed against them in the form of unjust incarceration, they were all aware of the need for forgiveness.
On one of our visits to Kachere Youth Prison, Zulu arrived after meeting with the CCAP Nkhoma prison committees. He was wearing the prison committee T-shirt, which quotes Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you visited me.” As a chaplain I’ve been asked in various settings what verse I use to motivate my ministry. And it has always felt like cheating to choose Matthew 25:36. After all, it seems like a command to me: Go visit people in hospitals and prisons! Somehow it seems that having gone through all the theological and counseling training I’ve been through, I should have a more nuanced motivational verse —one that would make people say, “Hmm” as they ponder the verse in a new light.
Choosing a verse that basically says, “Go be a chaplain” just doesn’t seem very fancy. But when I saw the verse on Zulu’s shirt, I thought: What better verse is there? People aren’t “the least of these” because they are somehow less worthy of love or value. Rather, they are the “least” because they are forgotten, overlooked or ignored by society. They are the people who don’t fit into our daily routine, or who remind us of the pain and suffering and complications that we can find everywhere. Those things are unpleasant, and most of us avoid spending much time thinking about them. But Jesus speaks right to that, saying, whenever you encounter someone who is forgotten, or reminds you of pain and suffering, or makes your life complicated, that’s where you will find me!
So go, visit, serve, love them and remind them that they aren’t alone and they aren’t forgotten! And who knows — you might just find that Jesus has been there all along, right wherever you’ve forgotten to look.
Jeremy Garbat-Welch, Mission Co-Worker
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, March 22, 2020, the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
First Reading 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Second Reading Ephesians 5:8-14
Gospel John 9:1-41
Today’s Focus: Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP)
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Gina Yeager-Buckley, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Alexandra Zareth, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, you know the struggles and challenges of people who are often forgotten and of people who seek to serve the underserved. May we join our hearts and lives in ways that will glorify your holy name. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.