BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS | Kaley Payne
“When you look at these people, they look so normal and so ordinary. But they are the people who’ve caused others a tremendous amount of pain and grief. They are someone else’s nightmare,” Pastor Willy Dengler tells me as we drive towards the Johannesburg Correction Centre, the city prison in South Africa known as “Sun City”. It’s my first prison visit and I’m nervous. But for Pastor Willy, he’s lost count of how many times he has been “inside”.
I’m in South Africa with Bible Society, on a visit to see Pastor Willy’s ministry inside the country’s crowded prisons. Bible Society is partnering in Pastor Willy’s work to run a discipleship course within the prison walls of more than 200 prisons across South Africa. The course teaches prisoners the love of God and offers them a Bible in their own language upon completion.
Pastor Willy offers a number of tips for my first prison visit. “Don’t make eye contact with the inmates.” “Be aware at all times that you’re standing with one of us or are near a guard.” “Don’t make any promises: you can’t contact their parents, you can’t give them your phone number.”
“But really, going in for the first time I would just take a deep breath and say ‘Thank you Lord’ for the opportunity. It’s not the place that I’d like to spend another day … but we do have family inside. You should feel at home, after a few minutes.”
At home in a prison? I certainly hoped not. As only one of two women in a group of about six heading into the prisons’ medium-security section, with thousands of male prisoners cloaked in bright orange jumpsuits, I felt about as far away from home as I’ve ever been and about as inconspicuous as a spotlight.
But Pastor Willy was right – I did find brothers on the inside.
In the middle of Sun City’s “Medium B”, on a quad of dirt, encased in concrete and wire, I met William. I was told by guards not to ask what the inmates were imprisoned for and, on my first day, I didn’t want to know.
William is one of the leaders of the Christian group who meet in Medium B. He facilitates groups who go through the discipleship course together, runs Bible studies and helps arrange a weekly church service in the prison yard. He has a good relationship with the guards, some of whom have done the discipleship course too.
He tells me Psalm 27:10 is a verse of comfort for him. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”
“It helps me a lot because it’s about him. It’s not about them [his family]. I trust the Lord more than my friends and my family. I trust him.”
On my second prison visit, to Modderbee, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I meet Sfiso. He’s lost one of his legs, and jumps around on a crutch under his left arm. On the day I meet him, he’s leading a worship group and he is filled with joy. And yet, he tells me he’s just over a year into a 20-year sentence for hijacking.
“I’m here because I’m a sinner. But Christ changed my life. I take Christ here at prison. When they sentenced me, my life was miserable. But someone took me to the prison church and we opened the Scriptures to Jeremiah 1:4-5, where it says, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’ It made me realise that it’s not a mistake that I’m here on earth.”
For those like William and Sfiso who have lost everything, even their freedom, learning from the Bible is a great source of refuge. And thousands of South African inmates have that same opportunity, through Pastor Willy’s discipleship courses. Over 8500 inmates enrolled in the discipleship course in 2015 and over 6000 completed the course either by correspondence or facilitator-run courses like the kind William runs on the inside.
You can help bring the Bible’s light to some of South Africa’s darkest places.
Each year, Bible Society focuses on a particular country or region. In 2016, it’s South Africa: a nation struggling with the effects of inequality, more than two decades after the end of apartheid.
Get The Word Out to South Africa has two Bible-based projects helping children get a better head-start, and a life-changing programme that takes God’s word into South African prisons.
There are all sorts of things you, your church or your small group could do to help Get The Word Out to South Africa.
Bible Society has videos, posters and a booklet to help you fundraise. Download them for free at biblesociety.org.au/gtwo2016
(If you’d like hardcopies please email [email protected] to check for availability)