“How can one go back into his mother`s womb and be born again?”
Nicodemus famously asked Jesus this question in the Gospel of John, in response to Jesus telling him that he must be “born again” to enter into God’s kingdom.
This is the foundation of our pastoral commitment at the Central Prison of Kananga, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through physical and spiritual nourishment, we are working to help these prisoners be re-born in a new life of hope, virtue, and dignity.
These prisoners are thirsting for help, longing to be born again. We do our best to offer these prisoners the things that they most need, including food, medicine, clean water, legal help, and above all, spiritual support and comfort.
Offering Prisoners the Help of Many Volunteers
Our prison ministry relies on the help of many volunteers. People in the local community offer their time, their medical expertise, and their extra food and clothing to come to the prison and care for the weak and malnourished of the prison. Many times, our volunteers are former prisoners who were touched by this ministry and who come back to help and serve when they have been released from prison themselves.
A young Christian man named Donatien, a local college student, has volunteered to work with us for the cause of the prisoners. Every day, after listening to the prisoners, he sets on his way to visit the families of the prisoners. Donatien does this with a lot of love, patience and perseverance to try and repair the broken family relations. It usually ends up with a family visiting their son, father, or brother for the first time. When they reunite, they shed tears and the forgiveness of God becomes manifest.
Offering Prisoners an Encounter in Silence with Christ
What is it like to be in prison in the DRC? Noisy. The prisoners live in the same cell and the same dormitory until their sentences are served. They are always living with noise: discussing, playing, laughing, teasing each other, complaining against one another, quarreling and even fighting. But, like all human beings, they long for and need silence.
That is why, in addition to the Sunday Eucharistic celebration, I suggested a thirty-minute time of silent meditation on Wednesdays for them to come face-to-face with God and with themselves. Although many were enthusiastic about the idea, I was not expecting many to attend.
However, to my great surprise, there are about 170 prisoners (out of 500!) who come every Wednesday to the chapel to sit, head bowed down before a crucifix and a lighted candle on the altar, to encounter and listen to Jesus, just as Nicodemus did over 2,000 years ago.
Not only was the turnout greater than expected, non-Christians also attend. In our ministry, we do not distinguish between Christians and non-Christians. All of them are welcome to encounter and experience in silence the holy embrace of God. In silence they discover that Jesus is their friend!
Offering Prisoners the Sacraments
Perhaps more than any other Sacrament, Reconciliation offers each of us an opportunity to experience spiritual rebirth. We priests offer sacramental Confession to Catholic inmates, but we also invite non-Catholics to confess their sins to the Lord while we pray for and with them.
I remember one prisoner who came to me outside of confession and told me: “I’m not Catholic, but I have done many bad things, I hurt a lot of people. That weighs heavily on my heart. I want to unload myself before God.” His heartfelt confession reminded me of Jesus’ words to the “good thief” when he was dying on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise”.
Offering Prisoners Friendship
Our commitment at the Prison of Kananga consists essentially of listening to the prisoners as human beings with dignity, who are in need of spiritual comfort and friendship. For this purpose, we have refurbished part of an abandoned building in the compound of the prison. It is a peaceful and convenient venue for the prisoners to open up their hearts and souls.
We listen to them with respect and compassion and without any prejudice. Sometimes in the beginning, they lie, because they do not trust us completely. But we do not confront them. We do not directly ask them about why they are in prison. We allow them to tell us about their families: parents, brothers and sisters, wives, and children. Usually the conversation ends in tears. Often, we find that it is the prisoners who are most talkative and always joking with everyone who are the most unhappy.
To our surprise, we often learn through these conversations that some of the men have been in prison without the knowledge of their families. They therefore ask us to visit their families, to get for them some clothing from home, to ask their families to visit them at the prison. In short, through these chats we come to know what we need to do for the prisoners and what they expect from us.
Hearing the Call to Serve Those Most in Need
This prison ministry is only one aspect of our work among God’s poor here in Kananga. But it is a unique work with unique “fruit.” We also work with orphans and other youth who struggle to be integrated with normal societal life. We are leading many initiatives having to do with helping indigent people have access to medical help, especially urgent care. In short, our mission is one of living out the corporal works of mercy, according to Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.”