John's story of running Alpha in one of the toughest environments.
John is a prison chaplaincy volunteer. He shared with us some of his thoughts and insights about being involved in prison ministry and running Alpha in one of the UK’s most challenging environments. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved in this story.
People often ask me why I do it. Why do I choose to spend my time in amongst the most dangerous, the most difficult and the most damaged people in our society?
It might sound strange, but one reason I love prison work is the honesty I encounter. I have found that in church, when we meet on Sundays or in small groups during the week, I ask how someone is doing and usually get a pretty bland answer, “I’m doing ok” or “Yes I’m doing fine thanks, how about you?” However, when I ask the guys in prison the same question I get an honest answer. I hear exactly where their life is at, how they really feel and what is really going on.
I have been involved in prison ministry for the past seven years, and volunteer two afternoons a week. I serve as part of the chaplaincy team at at a prison which holds men, most of whom are ‘lifers’. They have committed the most serious offences and therefore are serving long sentences, occasionally whole-life tariffs, in an institution that has been designed to be practically unescapable. Almost all of my Alpha group are serving for murder or violent manslaughter and on the first session it’s not unusual to recognise someone because you have seen them on the news.
One of the incredible privileges of going in each week is that I get to know the men over time. Many who come in for the first time are like a rabbit caught in headlights; others may be long term or habitual offenders and this is just part of their ‘life’s routine’. As a volunteer, I can give them the time of day that few have ever given them before. The fact I am not paid and yet still have an interest in them, goes a long way and helps to build up trust between us.
When you enter prison, all social trappings are stripped away; all those things that on the outside acted as props or substitute gods are gone. Suddenly, you have nothing to rely upon and you begin to ask questions. Questions like ‘What am I doing here?’, ‘What is this life really all about?’. When you enter prison and your old life has collapsed around you, there is nothing else to hang onto.
On Alpha we create a space where prisoners can ask those questions, meet with God where they are at and discover who God is for themselves. Prisoners like John who I got to know on the wings of the prison last year. He was a Satanist and used to tell me “The devil rocks” whilst rudely gesturing. I'd say back “Jesus is Lord” and point heavenward; it was all good-natured.
Three weeks ago he quietly (and that in itself was unusual!) came to me and asked if he could come on Alpha. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or if he was going to be disruptive but I said that he could. He has now been coming for the last three weeks and he sits there quietly listening. He has asked for a Bible and other reading materials and has told me that he needs to change. God is slowly starting to do something in his life and Alpha is just the beginning of that.
Or take another of the men; we’ll call him Callum. Callum was a high-level international drug dealer. He is Catholic and God has been on his case for many years. He tried to satisfy his conscience for all the wrong he was doing by being generous and helping people. One day he fled the UK and decided to stop dealing in hard drugs.
He prayed to God “If ever I deal in hard drugs again send me to prison”. After a while, money got tight and he started dealing again. He visited his mum and on that visit she gave him some Rosary beads which he put in his bag. A little while later he was driving in the countryside and was stopped by the police. This surprised him as he was in the middle of nowhere and not speeding. The police asked him to open the boot of his car and in it they found a number of bags filled with drugs. As he was being arrested the Rosary beads slid out from one of the carryalls and he immediately realised God was speaking to him in a significant way.
Many of the men that I work with have committed serious crimes and this is often reflected in their characters. Their outlook on life can be very black and white, there’s often no room for grey areas. So when these guys become Christians they really are all out for Jesus. Their commitment is real, especially in the face of ridicule from others on the prison wing. Callum is now doing Alpha, and in his “no nonsense” fashion, he is pursuing God and wants to see Jesus work powerfully in his life.
Those involved in Alpha have the privilege of helping people discover that they can be free in their hearts, even if they remain constrained by concrete walls and steel bars. The changes I see in some of the men over the time I walk with them can be quite profound. Running Alpha in prison is tiring and challenging, but when you encounter the passion of the living God at work in people’s lives you cannot help but be captivated.
If you’d like to get involved with volunteering in prison please contact the Alpha UK Prisons Team