By Tony Rykers
"I was in prison, and you visited me not.” – Jesus (Matthew 25:43)
They sleep hungry and huddled in darkness crowded on concrete, often without mats or blankets to shield them from cold, damp floors. They are lucky to get two meals and day, but often survive on less. Items for basic dignity like clothing and soap are rare commodities.
These are the heartbreaking memories from my years visiting prisons in Africa.
Sadly, this is a daily reality for more than 10.7 million people locked in prisons around the world. The conditions I described are just some of the horrors that prisoners face. Some inmates die in their cells – never to breathe free air again.
As bad as the conditions are for prisoners physically, emotionally and mentally, it pales in comparison to the spiritual hopelessness. While our team can’t change the living conditions, we can introduce them to the One who can bring light to inner spiritual darkness.
While we love every aspect of preaching, training and evangelizing, our Cornerstone Ministries team has a special place in our hearts for prison work. These people feel forgotten, abandoned and unloved. It is our honour to show them that this is not the case, and to tell them about the tremendous love Jesus has for them.
These prisoners are God’s children. His heart longs to see them accept the hope of the gospel. Often, prison is one of the places where we can get their undivided attention to share the gospel message. There is nothing more miraculous than seeing Christ work in these hearts and minds. It is often in the shadows that God’s light shines the fiercest.
This is what we found as we conducted an evangelistic program in Nhamantandah, Mozambique.
Over 200 men crammed into three small cells at the old concrete Nhamantandah prison. It was not meant to be a long-term facility. The maximum sentence there was three years, with longer-term inmates sent on to a larger facility. It was just as well, as the overcrowded living conditions were miserable.
The men had no beds, blankets or pillows. They slept on concrete floors huddled together on a few worn grass mats. The smell of urine hung heavy in the air emanating from the single overused urinal in each cell. They were rinsed daily, but years of use had created a resistance that withstood any cleaning.
There was a drought in the region. Food prices had doubled, but the prison budget had not been adjusted to reflect the extra demands. I asked the warden how many meals the men were given each day.
“Three,” he told me. “But since the drought started, the first meal is only water with a spoon of sugar. The other two meals only equate to one good meal.”
The lean times were revealed in the thin bodies standing before me. We tried to help by daily buying extra bread and bananas, along with other basic necessities that the men gratefully accepted. The guards were also very happy for the help. They were doing their best to care for the men with limited funds
We also purchased each prisoner a pair of jeans and a shirt through a bulk buy from a local market. They were very pleased with their new clothes.
The preaching program went well with a strong attendance. The men eagerly listened to the gospel message and asked me many questions after each session.
At the end of the campaign, 59 men gave their lives to Christ and were baptized by the local conference president. They happily climbed into two 44-gallon drums of water, which served as a makeshift baptismal fonts inside the cell.
Each new Christian received their Bible, along with more bread and bananas. We made some good friendships, and I’m grateful for the warm reception we received.
Sadly, I don’t have many pictures of this special time with these men. The director told me that I couldn’t take pictures inside the prison. He didn’t want others to see the horrible conditions the men endured. These restrictions meant that we don’t have pictures of the preaching or baptisms. We were allowed to take pictures on the last day of our ministry after the baptisms. The candidates were allowed outside the cells briefly for a group photograph.
I did snap a few quick pictures on my laptop of the interior of the prison as we set up to present. They aren’t the best quality, but they should give you some idea of the cramped living conditions of the main cell.
The new converts have been left in good hands. Two local elders, who have been working in this prison for several years, will continue to nurture these men and hopefully lead other inmates to the saving knowledge of Christ.
Please continue to pray for their efforts and ministry.
In His Service - Tony Rykers
Speaker/Director for Cornerstone Ministries Australia.