Sarah Gillard-Faulkner, deacon and prison chaplain, looks at how we consider the ravens
My guess is that, for most people, prisons are neither here nor there places. They have no real presence in the world until something very sadly disastrous happens. When such awful incidences take place, such as we have seen in our capital in recent months, they still do not really appear on the national news. Though the thought of them may stir our conscience, would you be aware or even know that, for over four decades there has been at least a day of prayer each year dedicated to those affected by the world of prisons? First appearing as “Prisoners Sunday” on the 2nd Sunday of October, now over 40 years later there is an entire week of prayer designed and dedicated to all those affected by custodial setting communities in the United Kingdom. I am one of those people fortunate enough to work in one and have seen first-hand the multi-layered effects one person’s decisions can have on whole communities of people.
Prisons are by their very nature contentious places, but their primary function is safety. That purpose is twofold: firstly, they aim to keep wider society safe from those who would cause great harm to our way of living. It seeks to keep out of our communities those whose behavioural choices are more than countercultural, rather are completely and utterly destructive on other people. Secondly, they seek to keep the people within them, that is staff and prisoners, safe.
I am conscious that as I write of certain high-profile criminal cases with perpetrators of the most serious of crimes being given lifelong prison sentences which is right and proper. Yet within the gospel accounts Jesus himself addresses how we should respond to those in prison. In chapter 25 of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself puts visiting those who are in prison as a responsive activity of those who seek to follow him.
Whatever your own thoughts about the criminal justice system we have, in this country we have a penal system that seeks to, whether it acknowledges it or not, be Christian and restorative in its intention. It seeks to offer human beings the opportunity to reform themselves and, as a result, their way of life, and it is seeming to me that faith has an awfully important part to play in that. My job as a chaplain, however, is not primarily to seek out the lost and convert them to the faith. It is more about getting alongside those individuals who find themselves living in the community which I serve, through listening to their stories and showing my care for them that they are loved and wanted if not by those around them then certainly by God himself.
This year, the week of prayer was entitled Consider the Ravens. It looked Luke 12.24 which states: ‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!’ This set us on a journey of despair to hope, a journey from having nothing to having an abundance. It has been a way to grow in our understanding of the value God places on each one of his children, so that like the ravens we may soar, free at last, trusting in the knowledge of his provision and love for us. That is the journey of faith. The awakening with in us of new life. That is what the resurrection brought. That is our witness.
Aware of each human being’s value to God in the world, and conscious of the hope that the resurrection has brought us, whether we think it right or not, most perpetrators of crime will be released back into our communities following their custodial sentence. So what can we do to respond to God’s call in Matthew 25 “what you did to the least of these, you did it to me”? No doubt there will be a prison near you, for there are in this country 117 prisons and each has a chaplaincy department which seeks to build up relationships with the wider community. There are many ways that you could respond to Jesus’s call to visit those in prison, either by contacting your local prison and offering your help or supporting organisations like Prison Fellowship (prisonfellowship.org.uk) in their projects which support those in prison. There are also several charitable organisations that support the families of prisoners, and charities working with those who spend time in custody on their release.
One of the regular and most helpful things we can do is pray for our prison communities: to remember those establishments local to you in prayer. Remembering its residents and its staff is a great support mechanism, and one that we who work in such environments need. Finally, a note for next year’s Prisons week starting on the 2nd Sunday of October. Many of those who find themselves in custody have had chaotic and unsettled lives, and a life of faith can bring with it a sense of stability and certainty in a world that is so turbulent. Please remember those who so often are forgotten about, those whose lives are changed and will never be restored because of them, and those who seek to willingly bring change so that the life of our world and society may become a better place.