More than any other word, this sums up my emotional state having experienced a morning at Baavianspoort Youth Prison yesterday morning with the Pure Hope team. Maxie, my lovely South African lady, has led her team in mentoring work at Pretoria Central Prison for several years now, primarily working with younger children and youth in the juvenile sections of that maximum security prison, and yet had recently concluded that there simply wasn’t enough of an opportunity for their team to help shepherd transformation in the lives of the youth they were in relationship with.
Enter Baavianspoort, a ‘first entrance’ prison for young men between the ages of 14 to 21. While there are some prisoners that have sentences of up to 20 years, for offenses as serious as murder, many of the prisoners are there for less serious crimes such as theft or drug related charges, and are incarcerated for several months up to several years. Joe Reed invited me to join him in helping the Pure Hope team listen and experience their first morning of work within this new setting, as an opportunity to practice discernment alongside a strategic partner basically asking God what He was up to.
After snaking through a long series of roads that felt more like a military community than a prison, we came to the prison. Several gates, identification markers, and a long walk through barricaded hallways, and we arrived into a large open room surrounded by cells. The women in charge of spiritual care for the prisoners (some form of chaplain/social worker) called the young men out of their cells, and suddenly we were surrounded by 80 to 100 young men all dressed in maroon sweatsuits. Already a bit nervous, I became stone silent as they spontaneously broke into acapella songs of welcome and worship of Christ!
Tears in my eyes and a quiver in my chin, I stood stunned at the magnificence of their voices, the openness in their spirits, the evident community among these young men, and their generous spirit of welcome to us. I looked out at a sea of faces and wondered at the series of choices these men had made that landed them here in strangely matching choir outfits. I am sure that some of these voices didn’t care to grow, change, and will likely wind back up here having made poor decisions with their futures.
But I found myself hoping for something more, and heartbroken at the lack of mentoring, shepherding, and likely, fathering, that this generation of men before me had received. What could take place if we were to invest in them, walk with them, train our friends in Pure Hope to carry relationship with them forward as these men were released upon completing their sentences?
Maxie soon led us in various games where we learned names, kicked soccer balls around inside the walls of this prison, and soon dived into a full-on 4 on 4 soccer tournament. Off to the side at some tables, a group of inmates drew pictures with boxes of crayons and colored pencils we had brought with us. A group of ‘leaders’ among the men were identified (those who had shown commitment to growth and transformation, and who desired to help other inmates grow), and Joe and Maxie spent much of the morning chatting with them about possibilities of us mentoring and sending them back into their communities, transformed and rehabilitated.
We heard several stories of former prisoners who had met Christ within the walls of this prison and then led family members to God who were stunned at the way their boys had changed from being locked up.
What could take place if prisoners were released into their neighborhoods, transformed and sent as missionaries to their families and friends?
I shudder (in hope) at the potential work of God in this way.
And I hope that I may play a small role in this redemptive mission, as I made a slew of new friends yesterday, all wearing the same maroon sweatsuit. Sure, many of them had done something wrong.
But aren’t we all in need of change?