Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mission: Prison. Hope for the Forgotten Inmates

At some point, when one has given everything they have or that they know how to give, and they have nothing else left.....  How then do they still feel free?   Or does it automatically mean that one is not?

It is Wednesday of Holy Week... the day we remember the betrayal of Christ and His imprisonment.  My thoughts have quickly turned to Him and His integrity while a prisoner, to the thief on the cross and the harlot.  How the services of holy week work on our deepest guilts and transgressions! I begin to contemplate human freedom and how Christ remained free in every circumstance and yet set us free through His passion.

I am also remembering the times we had with Father Gervasios Raptopoulos of Thessaloniki last March just before the beginning of the fast.  He came to visit the New Zealand prisons.

A few facts:

Father Gervasios has supported over 15,000 prisoners financially.  He has ministered to many of them personally. He has raised over 4,000,000.00 Euro in financial support for people who could not pay their jail fines or who needed clothes or health items while in prison. He has gone to prisons in more than 15 different countries and to every prison in Greece.  If you want to know more about him, you can read up on his ministry at a very nice Orthodox Blog called Mystagogy. Click on the links:

He came as a guest of our Archbishop who also was with us.  It was quite a stirring visit.

Visiting inmates in Greece

Like brothers

When he arrived in Auckland his first stop was our home.  His countenance was as gentle as a  springtime flower. The look in his eye was as clear as the Aegean Sea when the water is still and from your boat you can see the beauty that the sun's reflection hides when you are on the shore: fish, coral, sea life, clarity.   He was not eager to talk, and extraordinarily attentive no matter what was being said, comfortable in his own place. I wondered if I would get a chance to know him or if he was just too deep for that kind of thing.  What a silly thought!  He is a relational genius.  With a well timed smile and a nod he can enter into your world and talk about you in a way that makes you think you are seeing yourself for the first time.

Discussing the schedule shortly after their arrival.
He didn't come alone but with two women: a nurse who cares for his health, and another, also from the Synodia of Saint Xeni who came as an interpreter, who also handled their communications for the ministry and their finances.  There were also two men, a TV reporter for a lifestyle/news program called "True Scenarios"  (Αληθινα Σεναρια) Mr Nikos Asflanidis and photographer Christos. These men came to do a documentary on the prison ministry of Father Gervasios and to also make a documentary about the Greeks in New Zealand.  Their work also took them to Fiji, where they made a documentary about the mission work there.

They scheduled to visit 3 prisons in Auckland but were only able to visit 2, one men's and the other women's.   It took a lot of communications skills from Father Paul for the NZ prison system to approve the visit. They are very keen here in NZ to protect the prisoners, respecting their vulnerable state. It was the first time that Father Gervasios had encountered this type of obstacle.

At the men's prison,  the visitors were greeted with a traditional Maori Powhiri.  Just so that you can see how seriously this ritual is taken,  below is a link depicting one that was done in Wellington when Hillary Clinton visited nearly 3 years ago.  If you have never seen one, then you may find that you have never seen anything like it.

Powhiris are a regular here.  The Samoan and the Tongan and other island nations have similar traditions. Powhiris are about communication, spirituality, and gender plays a very important role. Manhood is about strength and wisdom and wisdom is spoken. Women have a strong role, as well, as their  spiritual presence is considered a contribution; they are protected by their men during these meetings, and as such they are supposed to feel very, very valuable in their culture.  Ordinary men are supposed to be able to show that they are honorable through this ritual.  For how "uncivilized" the dance and chanting appear to us Westerners, in the end, the real decorum is about the sharing of hearts and not material things.

Once the initial greeting is complete, and the chanting is also, tender words are actually exchanged, and there are speeches made and these are intended to bring a beautiful meeting of the minds.   In the words of Mr Michael Templeton who is a pastoral worker from Saint Paul's Anglican Church, "the tradition is to engage first in a profound spiritual way, seeing and recognizing each party as bringing a spiritual element with them. There is an invitation for God to be with them.  Then, there is a focus back to Earth, to the place where the work intended needs to be done."

Michael was especially impressed by the words of our Archbishop Amfilochios who told the wonderful story of a Maori Soldier who married a Greek woman after WW2.

Their story won the hearts of Kiwis and Greeks alike throughout New Zealand...  but many of the inmates were hearing of this for the first time, and they said afterwards how they appreciated H.E.'s choice to share that story in particular . His Eminence also recognized the deep traditions of the Maori and made connections between our cultures through the understanding of tradition and it's importance. 

Father Gervasios made a very interesting distinction for the inmates telling them also about something we have in common.  Those of us who are not in prison also are guilty, but we have not been convicted yet.   Thus he gave significance to the universal need for repentance: that everyone makes mistakes, affirming that sin is a reality we all live in.  Everyone needs to change.  By speaking about sin in this way, he gave them a sense of brotherhood with the world outside to help them make necessary changes.  A loud applause was heard in appreciation.

The inmates offered the following:  "...when people speak with words it is so the reason of the mind can be heard.  When they sing it is so that the heart can be heard" .... and a Maori proverb "What is the most important thing in the world: the people the people the people! "

The way I see it is that if we all had a stronger sense of brotherhood to begin with, they might not be in jail now.  When we read of Christ forgiving the harlot, we see Him giving her once again a place in her community.   When we read of him healing the soldier's ear, we see Him acting beyond the scenario and the emotion of that moment.  The prisoner Christ, is the giving one because He is the One who is truly free.  The soldier is the one in need, along with St. Peter who drew the sword.

Introducing Father Gervasios and His Eminence

The following Sunday, Father Gervasios came back to the parish, he talked to our congregation about how raw a feeling it is to have your humanity stripped away from you because of your prison sentence.  He told us of  a time when all he had to offer an inmate was 30 euro, and that this little amount in the inmate's pocket helped him to feel human again because he could call home and buy cigarettes. That little bit of freedom was a priceless gift even if only worth 30 euro in the world.

That Sunday, I had the privilege of interpreting the sermon for both our Archbishop and for Father Gervasios.  It was a beautiful lesson, quite intricately and delicately told to a very full house.  He began by answereing what may have been the simplest question of all....  Why did he come such a distance?  His answer was: "To visit Christ in the prison."

Christ the Bridegroom
He is mocked as a prisoner

The prisoner is just as much an icon of Christ as we are and perhaps even more so because Jesus knows what it is like to be behind bars and treated badly.  When I heard that my mind fell like a thump into my heart.  I would scarcely go across town to visit a prisoner let alone across the world.    He gave me the impression that he really does visit Christ when he is with anyone, and more so the prisoner.

He talked about our own practical spirituality, the value of keeping watch over what we allow to enter our minds and hearts through the senses.  Our ears, for example,  were designed to listen to the sounds of nature as a gift of God, and to listen to another who may be in pain, or perhaps to the angels.  When we use the same ears, which He created for a purpose, to listen to anything contrary, we risk being  spoiled in our hearts and minds. And he said that when we do keep the members of our bodies in faithfulness to the Lord, not only do we avoid the pain of sin, but we become holy for the Body of Christ.

His compassion for the inmates is not so much sorrow for their time away from society, but for the created immortal soul that is a unique and precious child of God. His genuine concern for the soul gives him a great reach into that depth in many people, so that they can feel their own humanity, as brothers and sisters, to a world from which they have been exiled.

Communications never cease.
Both were taking calls from Greece

Chanting the Vespers service in the van 

Sneaking in a birthday celebration 
Especially when the schedule is tight, His Eminence
knows how to slow down the pace... appreciating God's gifts
Niko and Christo doing a bit of the same
Throughout Great Lent,  we have been thinking and talking about repentance and there is something about Father Gervasios' lessons that really brought the message home to me.  For so long, I had thought about repentance being about doing the hard work of generating good behavior where there was wrong behavior before.  Then, it seemed to be,  it was all about creating a contrite heart where in our  innocence, we didn't need contrition.  Then, it seemed like repentance was all about acquiring humility so as to have a good relationship with Jesus Christ.  After Father Gervasios' visit, and a few experiences since then, it seems to me that repentance  is indeed all that.  Even more so however, it is about restoring a soul to its original beauty in community....  in community!

Recently, with the radio program, we had the chance to share a song by Brandon Heath.  It is about an inmate on death row, in a place he loves called Blue Mountain, Tennessee. You can hear the whole song by clicking the link:

Looks like this is my dyin' day
They tell me that's the only way
I'll ever see the other side again
But they don't know who's been in here
Every day the last three years
Yes, sir, I'm the one who let Him in
And He comes and sits down in my chair
Weeping, breathing this same air
And opens up His hands
Reminds me that He walked this mile
Suffered for a little while
And made me an innocent man

Would you pray with me
Touch the hand of a sinner
Would you stay with me
And be my guest for dinner

I want to send these lyrics to Father Gervasios. I think he would be pleased to know that there are people out there who understand the great value of the human soul.. the great value of repentance.


Anonymous said...

Your blog has been added to the Greek Orthodox Blog Directory:

Have good day.

Presvytera Katerina and Family said...

Thank you. This is a most unexpected honor. May it be blessed.