From despair to hope: Prisons Week 2021
Prison Week is a time to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people who are involved in caring for those affected by crime on the inside and outside of our prisons.
In this Where Faith Matters blog, Chris Auckland, Senior Outreach Officer, calls on us to be the eyes through which Christ looks upon prisons, prisoners and survivors of crime with compassion.
The theme for Prisons Week this year is respair, an English word from the 15th century that means “the return of hope after a period of despair”. This feels particularly apt, not just for those in prison, their families, chaplains and survivors of crime, but for all of us who have journeyed through the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of us still feel afraid, isolated, alone – feelings that many prisoners and their families feel too.
I was recently asked on Twitter what my favourite Psalm was, and I rather honestly answered Psalm 88. The writer of Psalm 88 focuses heavily on the feeling of darkness and despair. They bemoan that they have been thrown “into the depths of the tomb, into the darkest and deepest pit.” They question whether God’s miracles are “seen in that place of darkness, or your goodness in the land of the forgotten?” And it ends on the most painful of conclusions, “you have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness is my only companion.”
It’s tough, it’s so achingly bleak. But I am a firm believer that it is in the Bible for that very reason, and it’s got me though some difficult times.
It’s God’s reminder to us that it’s absolutely ok not to be ok, that God can take our pain and our anger at him in equal measure to our love.
We can often be quick to skip through these “negative” feelings. I’ve met many Christians who firmly believe that feeling sadness, grief or anger is failing God, that God expects us to be happy and joyful and that anything less than that is falling short. But this is absolutely not the case. Of the 150 psalms in the Bible 67 are psalms of lament, an outpouring of pain and anger and fear. We have a whole book called Lamentations, and let’s not forget about Job. All of these wrestle with profound questions of pain, fear, grief and anger.
But there is another side to that coin. A destination on that journey from darkness to light - Jesus.
The very opening of John’s Gospel paints that in a spiritual clarity that only John could – “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And in one of my favourite parts of Luke’s Gospel (4.16-30), when Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth, he directly references his role in bringing light into the darkness. In this verse Jesus is reading from Isaiah 61:1, which in some ancient translations draws a parallel with Isaiah 42:7 - “to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.” Jesus is the light in the darkness, the hope in our fear.
Which brings us back to prisons.
I remember distinctly the first time I visited a prison. Five years ago I stood outside the seemingly endless walls of a prison in Warwickshire intimidated by the world I imagined within. I’d seen prisons on film and TV, but being there, smothered by wire, gates, barred windows and guards, I felt a huge swelling of anxiety. I imagined a world inside those walls not dissimilar to that of Psalm 88. I wondered, could God’s miracles be seen in this place of darkness, or his goodness in this land of the forgotten?
Then, as the door opened to the courtyard, I was stunned by so much beauty. Gardens tended by the prisoners themselves, bird boxes brimming with life. Those towering walls were no barrier to creation, and there were no barrier to God. Up in the Chaplaincy I spent time and studied with the lads, getting to know them and their relationship with God, through the Bible. I saw pain, fear, remorse, but also hope.
That’s the journey we’re all called on – those in prison and those outside. Those who live and work in prison, and those who may have never been near one. Those separated from their loved ones in prison, and those separated from their loved ones in death or isolation. We journey from despair to hope, from grief to peace. We might take that journey once in our lives, we might take it every single day.
Christ has no body now, but yours
But none of us are alone in that journey, and as Christians we’re called to walk with those on that journey. This Friday is the Feast of St Teresa of Avila, who tradition holds once said “Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”
That’s my challenge to you. To be the eyes through which Christ looks upon prisons, prisoners and survivors of crime with compassion.
To be the feet with which Christ journeys with those from grief to hope. To be the hands through which Christ brings out “those who dwell in darkness...”
“May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.” - St Teresa of Avila
Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind. Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marks the beginning of the week of prayer each year, running through until the following Saturday.