An opened door
Today, in the prisons of Norway, there are men and women who, like many in Christ’s day, see no hope or future for themselves. But we praise God for the revolutionary changing power of the gospel.
High security prison
When the building of a new high security prison on the outskirts of Skien was proposed in the early 1990s, we realised it could become a useful focus for evangelisation and Bible study courses. We made this a matter of prayer.
So let me tell you how God opened the ‘door’ of opportunity.
The prisons in Norway are state-controlled and are required to engage a Lutheran chaplain. In 1995 a new chaplain was appointed at Skien. A year later, conversing with the newly appointed financial director of the prison, the chaplain made known a need.
He wanted someone to assist with Bible studies, especially amongst prisoners who were not Norwegian. Coming from various parts of Africa and Europe, most of these prisoners could understand English but not Norwegian.
The chaplain wanted someone who could not only converse with them but also had a reasonable knowledge of the Bible. Not all chaplains think like that!
The prison financial director is a member of our local assembly. On her recommendation, I was contacted by phone and within 24 hours walked through the ‘opened door’ to the prison. It was the beginning of a new, challenging ministry.
The early days of visitation were mainly used to build up confidence amongst the prisoners, who came voluntarily to Bible studies held in the prison library. Confidence and trust are vital ingredients in prison work.
When they questioned me regarding my work, it surprised them to learn that my sole purpose for these visits was to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the years, this has resulted in an excellent relationship with the inmates.
At first we had only English-speaking prisoners, but now the studies include Norwegians. Occasionally, Muslims attend. As a result, some prisoners have requested private visits to discuss their problems and anxieties — many of their lives are so messed up.
A sympathetic ear, time to listen, and a chat over a cup of coffee, can be of great comfort and help — especially to a foreign prisoner far from home, family and friends.
Who attend the studies, and what results have we seen? I cannot divulge names, offences or sentences, but let me share the work with you.
Skien is one of the few top security prisons in Norway. On arriving, there are necessary security procedures. I am then escorted by one of the prison staff to the library. The prisoners are escorted in, and we sit in groups.
It is important to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere. As the session normally lasts about two hours, the first part is a friendly chat over coffee and cake — a home-baked cake speaks a thousand words! Usually a sing-a-long precedes our Bible study.
Over the years, we have covered many biblical characters, books and topics. The chaplain has also provided videos. As Regional Director for Emmaus, Norway, I have been able to distribute Emmaus Bible Study courses suited to the needs of the prisoners. For many of the inmates, these studies have been interesting and thought-provoking.
The prison ministry has exposed us to the heartbreak of messed-up lives, ruined by sin. One of the saddest messages one can receive is that a newly released prisoner, whom we have sat next to during the studies, has taken a fatal overdose. Last year brought news of six such tragedies.
The oldest victim was in her early 30s, the youngest in his late teens. Some just cannot resist the horrible pull of drugs. This has happened all too often, and reminds us of the urgency of communicating the life-giving message of the cross.
The joys of the ministry, however, outweigh the heartbreaks. We have seen lives changed by the gospel and focused on the true meaning of life — knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ.
E. S. was such a prisoner. Convicted of a very serious offence and serving a 15-year sentence, he came to faith in Christ through the testimony of a prisoner on Death Row in the USA. ‘If you could change her life, then, Jesus, you can change mine’, he cried out to God from his cell, as he confessed his sins and trusted the Saviour.
His new-found forgiveness and faith in the Lord Jesus resulted in a thirst for the Word of God. Having a Gideon Bible at his bedside, he began to read it from cover to cover.
The chaplain asked me if I would do a weekly study with this man. What a joy it was to sit with an open Bible, discuss the Word, pray and encourage each other. His thirst for God seemed unquenchable at times.
E. S. was eventually transferred to another prison. One Christmas, he was permitted to ring me. ‘Nat, I’ve been allowed to hold a Bible study with some of the prisoners, and I have just pointed the first one to the Saviour!’ Now that’s what I call true Christmas cheer!
As a result of attending various prison conferences for those engaged in voluntary prison work, I have been able to introduce Emmaus courses into other prisons in Norway. Please continue to remember in prayer this method of spreading the gospel, and the many contacts that are made.
Pray also for the wisdom that is required for each visit. I am investigating the possibility of visiting English-speaking prisoners in other prisons here in the south of Norway. It would require the permission of the prison authorities, chaplains and, not least, the prisoners!
Jesus still calls and challenges us to go to those in need. The spiritual needs of Norway are great. The prison work is only part of those needs. We are privileged, yet humbled, to have this ‘opened door’ to go through with the gospel of Jesus Christ