A previous blog, ‘Endings and Beginnings’, described the lead up to when my wife and I finished our time with the international Christian organisation Operation Mobilisation (OM). It was 1994 and it had been 17 years since first joining in the autumn of 1977. I had started right after graduation in aeronautical engineering. Originally my thinking was to join OM for maybe a year or two and then return to something within aviation. Finishing student life I had thought my life direction would have some bearing on 4 years of study as well as the basic flying training undertaken. It was not to be. Indeed looking back there seems little connection between different periods of my life. Certainly not what I imagined a career path to be. For some their occupational journey has a natural progression as the years progress. That has not been my experience. I have to live with past decisions and motivations. As a Christian I also have faith in God to be leading me as well as a desire to do His will. Mixing all that together can seem messy. I don’t purport to have any ready answers.
Anyhow enough reflecting. It was the spring of 1994 when we left Japan and later that same year left OM. The time had come for Elisabeth and I to move on to a new stage of life. Doing so involved spending several months living with in-laws in Sweden and Scotland. We weren’t homeless but emotionally we were in limbo. It was not an easy time.
Through a friend I had been offered a job with Prison Fellowship Scotland (PFS). We moved to Glasgow, my home city where I was born and brought up. Glasgow was not new to Elisabeth either. We had previously represented OM in Scotland from 1987-90 and lived in Glasgow during that period. Despite this it would be a big transition. For me settling back in my hometown might seem familiar. However leaving OM was I imagine a bit like leaving the army. It had been a world where home and family life was often different from the norm. The ethos of the organisation permeated every aspect of life.
Moving to Glasgow would therefore in some respects be starting anew. During my years away a lot of the people I knew had become established in their work and home life. Many also I had lost contact with. Though growing up in Glasgow I also had few relations in the area. My family roots were in the north west of Scotland. Despite being married 10 years it felt like we were only just starting to think of settling down. Living in 8 homes on 3 continents had given us many rich and life enhancing experiences as a couple. However we had not really lived for very long anywhere. Writing this some 29 years later and still in Glasgow I guess we are settled!
Our initial accommodation was renting a small flat. It was owned by the daughter of one of the supporters we had whilst with OM. Wondering where we might find a local church we asked her where she attended. We went along to her church. West Glasgow New Church (WGNC) at the time met in a college building. It was a surprise to find several people I knew from the mid-70s. This had been when I was part of Glasgow University Christian Union. That experience and a warm welcome led us to join this independent church. It has been our church family ever since.
I began my work with Prison Fellowship Scotland (PFS). The world of prisoners, ex-offenders and their families was completely new for me. Like OM, Prison Fellowship was an international Christian organisation. I think at the time there were over 60 countries that had national groupings, all united as a federation. PFS was part of this global network. Prison Fellowship’s founder was an American – Charles ‘Chuck’ Colson. Chuck had been special counsel to President Nixon. Known otherwise as Nixon’s ‘hatchet man’ he was jailed as a result of the Watergate scandal. After his time In prison he founded Prison Fellowship. His book ‘Born Again’ is a powerful story of a transformed life and well worth reading. Chuck’s global leadership of the organisation was inspirational. This man who had risen to one of the world’s most powerful political positions had this to say of his time in prison.
“all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy…. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure — that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation — being sent to prison — was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”Chuck Colson
Each country where PF has a presence engages volunteers. They visit jails, befriending prisoners and sometimes their families. Serving alongside prison chaplaincies many of these volunteers faithfully visit, some for decades. Through them the lives of thousands of prisoners and ex-offenders have been touched. Lives changed through sharing the forgiveness and restoration found in Jesus. There are also disappointments. Some are in and out of jail, only to re-offend again.
In Scotland for me the world of prisons was to enter a sub culture within our society. Initially I did not know how to relate. Those in prison are first and foremost people. Winston Churchill said you can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. They may be being served just punishment yet are also part of our common humanity. They too have fathers, mothers, spouses, partners and children.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;” Isaiah 42:3 NIVUK.The motto of Prison Fellowship.
As mentioned a core part of Prison Fellowship’s work is to regularly visit jails, usually weekly. Small teams hold informal meetings with groups of inmates. These gatherings would often finish with an informal cup of tea at the end. Early on in my work I remember one such after meeting chat with an inmate. A golden rule was not to ask what someone is in prison for. However on this occasion the prisoner without being asked began to share how he had killed someone. I became aware of my body language recoiling from him, distancing myself. It was then I remembered that a number of the heroes of the Bible had murdered people. Men like Moses and David. The Apostle Paul had murderous intent before his conversion. Up till then I had been comfortable sanitising my view of Bible characters. I limited the scope of God’s work in people’s lives.
Over my five and a half years with PFS I visited almost all the prisons in Scotland. In certain company it would raise eyebrows when mentioning I had been in all but one of Scotland’s prisons. Only visiting!
All this talk of prisoners might sound that there was little regard for the victims of crime. One programme ran by PF was Sycamore Tree. Designed to challenge offenders to think of their victims. It works on trying to apply the encounter Jesus had with Zaccheus found in Luke 19 verses 1-10 to the offender’s own situation. Jesus desires hospitality from Zaccheus. Zaccheus’ subsequently desired to make reparation for his offences. In the programme symbolic or actual acts of reparation may be made to the victims.
Another practical form of care was Angel Tree. Then, on behalf of prisoners, Christmas presents were bought. They were then delivered to their children, often innocent victims.
A great priviledge on several occasions was to be part of a small team representing PFS on the international stage. This was attending conferences on Prison Fellowship International’s worldwide work. People representing different systems of justice and cultural approaches. Some advocating reform, some punishment and others restorative justice. These gatherings included ex-offenders, victims, law makers, law enforcers, prison officers, governors and judges. Also people like myself who didn’t feel they fitted in any particular category. All together trying to learn from one another.
One of Scotland’s most secure jails had a lovely chapel. Gaining entry through a series of locked doors was a sober reminder of just how incarcerated the men were. Yet in there the imprisoned spirit can sing. There can be remarkable honesty and little pretence. Lives are messed up. There is brokenness and regret. I recall that the singing of hymns in the chapel felt at times like they were trying to raise the roof. Many inmates readily identify with Jesus, the friend of sinners.