“God is alive and well in prison”

Prison Fellowship Australia

John Lawson, a former chaplain, Sycamore Tree Project and The Prisoner’s Journey facilitator, says the Holy Spirit is the core of his volunteering experience. ‘It’s the gospel that changes lives. Prisons run their own programs, but the gospel is the only thing that can change someone’s life. That’s the power of the holy spirit. I’ve learnt from other chaplains that inmates will spread the Word themselves. Their faith propels them to share hope with others behind bars. God is alive and well in prisons!’

And John knows the power of the Holy Spirit for himself. When John’s first wife passed away from cancer, he felt as if the days had too many hours. Suddenly living alone, John felt lost and listless. His previously happy retirement now felt empty. But, knowing the love of the Father for His children, John earnestly prayed, ‘God, I want to serve you for the rest of my life.’

But before John could embark on the next chapter, God had business to do with him. On reflection, John admits that in those 2 years before becoming a chaplain, ‘God convicted me of my judgmental spirit’. Through a workshop at a Hillsong conference, John was challenged not to judge anyone by their circumstances. Soon afterwards, John was volunteering as a prison chaplain, serving others in his retirement, and working for the Lord.

‘It’s the gospel that changes lives. Prisons run their own programs, but the gospel is the only thing that can change someone’s life. That’s the power of the holy spirit.’

‘Chaplaincy helped me to be more compassionate,’ he says. Entering a prison was a new experience for him, but filled with confidence in God’s guidance, John says, ‘I knew why I was there,’ and he couldn’t wait for Mondays to roll around so he could get back into the prison and spend time with the inmates. ‘I really loved it! I’d wait for the Holy Spirit to put things on my heart that would minister to where each man was at.’ John’s humility and reliance on God’s Spirit was clearly visible to the men he visited.

‘In John chapter 5, Jesus talks about looking to the Father for his work on Earth, and I like to follow his example and watch what the Father is doing and listen for his instruction. One morning, my devotional focused on the consequences of our actions, and I could sense the Holy Spirit was telling me to talk to this guy in prison, Marco*. The next Monday, when I visited him, I told him he needed to read this devotional. So, he did, and afterwards he said to me, ‘I was about to bash this guy in his cell, but I won’t now.’ I know what it is to be lost, and I know I can’t change anybody, but I can be an advocate for Jesus.’

‘I’ve been passionate about sharing Christ with the men, too. We need to spread the word, it’s as simple as that! I get excited about my faith, but I’m not in people’s faces. It’s important to try not to preach – I prefer a laid-back ministry style.’

‘The opportunity to share the gospel to a captive audience is incredible,’ says John. ‘Not everyone in prison is rushing to meet with a chaplain, but some of the inmates have had an experience of church or Christianity, so there have been seeds sown in their heart, and that’s what I try to reconnect with. Most of them have never had a good loving relationship with their father, so it can be a lot for them to try to see God as their Heavenly Father.’

‘Tony* was the classic “tough guy” in the unit. But I got talking to him in a non-judgmental way, and he just began to open up to me. That’s what being a chaplain is about. The important thing I’ve learnt is to be real and honest with these guys. Many prisoners are used to being manipulated and lied to, so they’re very aware of when you’re being real and when you’re not. Of course, I was careful about what I said, but I was always real and honest. I think as Christians, that’s how we approach life.’

‘There was another guy, Andy*, who was a drug dealer. I spent lots of time chatting with him and was able to share my faith with him. After a few weeks of meeting up, Andy said to me, “I’m going to give God a go.” 12 months later we all attended his baptism!

‘I’m still in contact with some of the guys I used to meet with – but it’s not an easy road for them. Some of them are doing well, some not so well. They need help and support.

In 2018, John was a facilitator of the first Prisoner’s Journey course ever run in Queensland. ‘TPJ is very different from chaplaincy. It’s a 7-week course, generally run in small groups, that looks at the life of Jesus, and encourages the participants to make up their own mind about him. And that’s key – it’s a space to give information, answer questions, and let the Holy Spirit do its job. We try not to preach. We’re not there to judge, we just welcome them, and try to focus on who God created them to be. You can’t speak into people’s lives without relationship!’

After a few weeks of meeting up, Andy said to me, “I’m going to give God a go.” 12 months later we all attended his baptism!

‘Each time we ran the course, there would be a couple of people who would come and listen, but never come back. But then there are times, like in 2020, where we had 7 women who were moved powerfully to follow Christ! Again, it’s an example of the gospel as the only way to change lives. Even the prison director was impressed and very involved.’

‘Jill*, was one of the women who gave her life to Christ after the course. In her evaluation of the course, she said that she didn’t know about God before the course and didn’t think anything would come of the course. But she experienced a powerful moment during one of the video presentations. She said, “There was a moment when I realised that God works wonders; and he helped the man in the video. It made me want to do the same and allow Jesus into my life.”’

John has also facilitated The Sycamore Tree Project, which brings perpetrators and unrelated victims of crime face to face in a safe, structured way to encourage understanding, compassion, remorse, and restoration. For John, it’s a powerful witness to God’s hand in the prisons. ‘It’s one of the most powerful programs. The Sycamore Tree Project is clearly life-changing for those involved. All the participants come into an environment where the leaders are welcoming, and there’s no judgement – that’s key! The course is very good in itself, but it’s crucial for the leaders to lead in a welcoming way.’

‘The Sycamore Tree Project really enthused me; I loved being involved. It amazingly changed men’s lives – it was so powerful to witness. At the end of the course, each participant has the chance to share their testimony. Even the prison staff were captivated by their stories!’

‘I don’t want to waste my life. Even though I’m 77, I’m still excited about my faith. I want to meet people where they’re at and share the gospel with them. I love the fact that I’m involved with Prison Fellowship, it’s a great organisation, and very good at its ministry! I am very thankful to have had the chance to be involved.’

Stories of Hope, from Prison Fellowship Australia.

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