“None of us came to Bible study to change…” V told us. “We came because it was something to do. But we’ve all changed, you can see that.” V is a tall and formidable 50 year old from Texas. She shared this with us during an individual meeting with her to help prepare her for her transfer to the US prison system, then home.
We are currently visiting two prisons under the umbrella of the prison ministry, Piedras Gorda ll in Ancon and Santa Monica Commoners in Chorrillos. At the moment Mary and I are the only two people visiting regularly. In Santa Monica, we enter as pastoral agents and visit once a week (except for once when they wouldn’t let us in because we weren’t wearing pastoral agent tabards). We have a time of singing, Bible study, prayer and conversation with the nine women in the group. We visit Ancon twice a week and enter on the normal women’s visit day.
As we are not officially meant to be entering as pastoral visitors, we print the Bible passages and study questions onto sheets of paper and pack them in the yellow carrier bags along with whatever items we’re taking, mainly basic toiletries and food. Sometimes we take in emails and money from family members or seasonal items like blankets and socks. We are only allowed to call one inmate per visitor so the group is a lot smaller here.
Inmates have to pay for everything inside including toilet paper and the Peruvian inmates rely on regular visits from family and friends to bring in supplies and money. The women have to be creative in generating an income. However, there are some opportunities to learn a new trade like hairdressing or workshops making shoes and handbags.
Our regular visits mean that not only are we building relationships with the women that we are going in to visit but also many others also who we see on a weekly basis.
These include prison officers, colectivo drivers, shopkeepers who look after our valuables while we’re inside, inmates whose job it is to call the visitors, mototaxistas and other visitors. Recently, we’ve had the privilege of praying with a woman from the mountains, who was a first-time visitor there to see her son, and another woman who visits her politician husband twice a week and who we have been getting to know in the queue during the past year. We spend an awful lot of time in queues at Ancon. This is also an opportunity for building relationships and being Christ’s light in that queue with women from all sections of society.
We have just finished a Lent study (generously donated to us by Prison Hope UK) called “40 stories of Hope” which went through the Gospel of Mark. Each day there was a testimony from a prisoner, ex-offender or prison chaplain, passages from Mark and application questions. At the end of the week, there was a group study which is what we looked at with the ladies during our visits. One woman told us that it was the first time she had read a complete book in the Bible. In one of the review sessions, one inmate shared how another member of the Bible Study group had encouraged her during the week regarding a difficult situation, with a Bible passage from Mark. The others then chipped in offering other Bible verses along the same theme from Matthew and Hebrews. We are so excited that the women are remembering, applying and encouraging each other with scripture that we are studying as a group.
The overall response to this study has been incredible; I’m not sure if it a sense of ownership as each woman has her own copy, a sense of unity as this is the first time we are leading the same study across the whole ministry, a sense of being understood as it is a six-week devotional from the perspective of those who have experienced prison life or perhaps just a sense of hope. Hope that comes from knowing that Jesus can and does change and transform lives, that we believe in a God of not only second and third chances but an infinite number. It is our prayer – and we ask you to be praying this too – that these visits and the relationships and the contacts that we make during these visits would bear fruit that lasts, fruit that has eternal consequences.
My colleague Mary writes…
“Returning to their home countries is a difficult time for the women we’ve been ministering to. They’re happy when prison sentences end, but the transition home comes with its own problems. When V said: ‘Mary, my prayers have been answered – I’m going home in a month’, I knew that this miracle would have a challenging aspect to it.
“V had applied for every possible option to reduce her five and a half-year sentence. Papers got misplaced. One judge outright refused her. Technically, she has another 15 months to serve, but she’s been allowed to leave and serve out the rest of her sentence in her home country and they may only detain her for one month. A miracle for sure, for a woman who’s been praying and working hard to leave prison.
“For many of the ladies it takes a year or more to adjust. Even applying for new documentation and getting a driver’s license can be stressful. Anna and I made a special trip to visit V in an effort to provide her with tools that will ease her re-entry into the country of her birth. We’re praying that these will help her.
“We usually go to the airport with the ladies and say our goodbyes. We’re not able to do that for V because she’s leaving under arrest. The others were allowed to check their luggage and have a carry-on as well. We can’t know when V is leaving and she’ll not be permitted to take any luggage.
“I offered to keep some items for her and send them when she’s settled. What does a person keep to represent the last five years of their life, a time filled with sorrow and pain? V is a tough person with strong opinions. She struggled with the warm relationship-focused Peruvian culture and tried to show them the ‘right’ way to do things. This approach usually ended badly.
“V put some keepsakes in a bag and gave it to me. It was hard not to cry when we itemised her precious things. A small Christmas teddy bear that we gave her last Christmas; a bag made for her by a lady in my home church in Canada; a devotional book; her Bible with the cover she’d made for it with the inscription ‘God knew’. He knows you, knows your heart, hears your prayers.
“When I was in Canada, a church gave me this Bible for prison ministry. Inside the giver had written ‘May this book become your source and strength as you learn more about the One who loves you most’. Please pray for V and the others who have returned home, that they would make healthy and wise decisions, especially concerning their relationship with God.”
Life without V continues in Lima; we’re working through a variety of complicated pastoral issues as the number of inmates in our groups has decreased but there has been a sudden rush of women being released (expelled, house arrest, transfers, parole and freedom) all with their own bureaucratic complexities and different impacts on the women and their families. Another benefit from our more frequent prison visits has meant that we have developed deeper relationships with the women and, in some cases, family members as well which improves the way we can support them outside of prison.
We’re currently studying James. Sometimes the conversations feel a bit like pulling teeth. But as James exhorts us to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive ourselves” but to “do what it says” (1:22), we are concluding each study with self-realisations and practical examples of how we can each apply the word of God to our thoughts, words and actions. Whether it was our intention or not, we are all being changed.
All my love,
The Call in Action