20 January 2021
Light in prison darkness
The Revd Bob Wilson is Free Churches Faith Advisor for Prison Chaplaincy.
In John 8:12 Jesus promises life characterised by the very light that shines from his innermost being to all who follow him. What a promise! What a challenge. This was such a radical statement that the pharisees were enraged, saying words to the effect: “Who says so? … Just you? … That’s not a valid testimony.” Two thousand years later we still bear testimony to the truth of Jesus’ words and the folly of the pharisees.
I have been working in prisons since 1995, and in those 25 years I have repeatedly witnessed the light of life shining from those whom we often see as being consumed by darkness. Here are just a few examples:
- I heard a violent offender in a Christian rehabilitative community say to a gentle Christian volunteer “You have helped me to learn how to talk again.”
- In an inner-city prison I have seen an habitual self-harmer in tears of joy as he laughed with his group leader who couldn’t play Monopoly without cheating.
- On a 12-step recovery course I heard a man in his fifties dogged by addiction all his life say finally “I can’t do this on my own, I really do need help.”
- In a prison chapel I have seen a man transformed by the simple act of saying the Lord’s Prayer and realising for the first time what he was saying.
- In churches around the country I have seen people who have left prison and found welcome, freedom and acceptance in a way that has led them to safely live life in the fullness for which Jesus died.
The deepest truth of the Gospels is arguably the light of Jesus, the one whom the artist William Holman Hunt characterises as standing at the closed door, which has no handle and so from a prisoner’s perspective is a like a cell door. When given the chance, Jesus’ light does indeed invade our darkness. I have seen that light transform, bring peace, bring joy, bring hope, bring life. The light of life in the darkest places… what a promise! What a challenge.
The Revd Naomi Kaiga looks after Ackworth and Upton Methodist Churches and is a part-time chaplain at HMP Wakefield.
Growing up in a village in rural Kenya, we didn’t have street lights. During evenings when there was moonlight, we would lie on the ground observing myriad stars in the sky. With no light pollution hindering our view, the stars and moonlight were so bright. It showed me that light shines brighter in darkness.
Someone thought I was nuts when I started volunteering as a chaplain at HMP Wakefield eight years ago, asking “Why bother to go to such horrible people?” I didn’t have an answer for her and I thought I would just be attending a Bible study, never envisioning my ministry involving prison chaplaincy. The first day the coordinating chaplain took me to the wings, I was terrified. I was sure that I could never be a chaplain there, but then something in me changed: God’s heart for his people was revealed to me. I was given a glimpse of how God sees these ‘horrible’ people. They are God’s children, who are broken by life and as a result they break and hurt others. I realised that there is no darkness or brokenness that the light of Christ cannot penetrate.
I volunteered for five years before being employed as a Free Church chaplain. I thank the Methodist Church for giving me this opportunity and my churches as they support me. Serving in prison reminds me of the Methodist belief “All can be saved”. Leading worship and Bible studies, listening and offering hope when someone is hopeless is a privilege and being a pastor to them is my greatest joy. My responsibilities include: pastoral visits, breaking the news of a relative’s death, praying and supporting someone who is suicidal, and much more.
Chaplaincy represents life and hope to many, especially those serving a life sentence. It’s a joy to witness lives being changed through the transforming light of life that is Jesus Christ. Seeing these broken lives being changed is a daily reminder that light cannot be defeated by darkness.
Stephen Caley is the Methodist and Free Church Chaplain at HMP Warren Hill and HMP Hollesley Bay and the Young Offender Institution in Hollesley Bay.
For four years I have had the privilege and great joy of leading a number of HMP Hollesley Bay residents who are on licence. The theme ‘light of life’ comes to mind particularly when I reflect on how we would gather together in the chapel, while it was still dark, to walk to the beach for the Easter morning sunrise service. They took turns to carry a large wooden cross and erect it in the shingle beach to await the first rays of the sun rising above the North Sea, when we would proclaim “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia.” Unfortunately we were not able to make this pilgrimage during 2020 due to Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions.
My 25 years as the Methodist and Free Church Chaplain at both Hollesley Bay and Warren Hill on the Suffolk coast is a testament to how God can call you in an unexpected direction. Despite once hearing that the “Light of Christ is not in any prison” I have proved time and time again it is not true. It is unfortunately a statement that has a negative effect on how people view chaplaincy ministry and the way in which Christ is that light of life.
Jesus – the light of life – is at work in prisons, as seen in many residents as they practise their faith and in those who come to faith during their sentence. Some residents have their own testimony and faith story and are eager to share in evening Bible Study, Alpha, and weekend worship. Sometimes a charitable gift of new clothing is requested and received. This gives prisoners practical and appreciated support, again demonstrating that the light of life is at work!
With sentencing comes a whole mix of problems for many, especially issues concerning family, bereavement and resettlement. The chaplains play an important part in supporting prisoners. In the name of Christ and the light of life we listen, care and offer prayers. Many residents ask for prayer, not only for themselves but also for their family back at home, and the lighting of a small candle is a potent symbol, enabling us to focus on the light of Christ in all situations and need.
This article originally appeared in the connexion magazine, issue 21.
Banner image and photos: © Robin Prime, Mark Kensett, TMCP