Grace and peace to you …

There is a group of Catholic workers in Cape Town that run an organization called Prison Care Ministry. They support the care of prisoners in various different ways, one of which is engaging in restorative justice work. The program is seven weeks long, leading the inmates through Biblical narratives relating to forgiveness and restoration. At the end of the journey their families are invited to join so that the prisoners can apologize to them, and if the families are ready they can extend forgiveness.

Last week I traveled with the team to witness the work that they do. When we arrived at the prison, we were shuttled from the parking lot inside to the prison entrance. There were 29 inmates gathered and rows and rows of family members. Sister Mary Brady, of the Prison Care and Support Network spoke to the group about the importance of forgiveness and shared that it was a process and not one that should be rushed. I appreciated the importance she placed on the prisoners also working to forgive themselves.

The work of restorative justice is to restore the prisoner in relationship with those they have wronged. The Prison Care and Support Network were focusing on restoration with family, community and self the day I was with them. I wondered if the crowd would have the patience to sit through all the stories, but many would shake their heads in understanding as each person shared. Family members were crying with other families. It was simply amazing the connection that was made between these 29 inmates and their families. After each family had shared, they would light a candle at the front.

One man stood and shared that he had not seen his family in sixteen years. His parents had died while he was in prison, but his sister was there. It is unlikely this man will ever be released from prison for he murdered several people and committed multiple crimes. Yet, when he stood before his sister there was something within him I could sense breaking free. He was sharing with her that he believed that he could still make a good life for himself even inside the prison walls. I couldn’t help but weep as he was talking to her. His sister shared with him that she accepted his apology and forgave him. The joy on his face was such a beautiful thing to witness.

As we were leaving, there were too many people to fit on the first bus, and I was one of the ones left behind. I found myself feeling stress as I was waiting for the bus to return. I can’t imagine living behind prison walls for an entire life, but so many of us actually do. There are ways of living out in the world where we can breathe the air of the free, but still live within a prison in our minds or the patterns we have set in our life.

Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” from John 10:10 are a call to break free from the prisons in our minds and our patterns of living. To witness a man so free who will live behind bars for the rest of his life was quite convicting. A question I feel we must all ask ourselves is, “What does it look like to truly be free?

With you on the journey, Michelle

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