Now that I have your attention after reading the headline of this post :-), I can tell you of the privilege Deb and I had this week to observe a “Restorative Justice” course in the Juvenile Hall of a South African prison.
After entering through scarily low security (nobody checked my backpack or my passport!), I don’t know exactly why seeing a room full of 25 young prison inmates from 18 to 21 just got to me. This is an entire juvenile cell, sitting in their navy blue outfits which reads “corrections” in large print. The hope of youth, ganged up behind bars, still full of energy and fun, but also bitter and angry. Their arms and legs are full of tattoos, many of which show what gang they used to belong to, and – sadly enough – they still belong to, even in prison. Getting that gang system out of their minds seems to be the biggest challenge in this “Restorative Justice” course where 20 some volunteers try to point the way out of the patterns of the past. Among them ex-convicts, whose testimonies are sobering and full of pain, but also full of gratitude that God changed their lives around. The room was silent when they shared and you could feel hope rising up that a changed life for each one of the youth is possible. But it comes with a price that seems too high for some: to give up revenge and to choose forgiveness. The air was tense when it came out, that one inmate had threatened another even that morning with killing him, just because he had been irritated by the other. “Give grace, God!” should be our prayer, that they will be able to live and sleep in one room together without hurting each other, without someone’s anger getting out of control and leading to actions of evil. Jesus’ way is different, and that is the hope and center of this course. May it fall on fertile and open hearts, which actually have no other way forward than the way that Jesus walked.
That same evening we could join more than 100 believers from different churches who were coming to the male section of the prison, where about 1700 men are incarcerated. While we were praying for the inmates, we walked for about an hour along shabby endless corridors with a brass band leading the way. The noise brought all the prisoners crowding at the tiny windows with bars that separate their cells from the corridor, and many stretched out their hands to be greeted. I tried to touch them all, but was soon pushed onward by the organizer, because I kept lingering too long. My “God bless you” and “We are praying for you” seemed shallow, but that is all I could get out, overwhelmed by their despair and their pleading yet joyfully surprised faces. Some of them shouted their cell number or their names to ask for individual prayers, which we incorporated into the prayers.
What an unforgettable prayer walk for me! South Africa needs God, and that is especially true for the prisons.