Inspiration in Prison Ministry
As we celebrate the Columban Mission Society's centennial, Columban lay missionary Haiti Muller refl ects on her journey in the prison ministry where she gets inspiration from the work of Columban Fr. Francis Chapman.
Where there is heart there is love; where there is love there is joy; where there is joy there is God.
Coming back home from prison visitation, I felt the beauty of nature, trees so green with a cool breeze, birds singing loudly and the heaven starts to open with its blessing of rain making my tiredness go away, hoping that my brothers in jail would feel the same experiences that I have; my heart melts, and my tears fell. I miss them. My mind and heart are restless but how can I help them? What can I offer them? Or is it enough just to give them hope? I failed to fi nd answers to my own questions so I kept quiet and said, "Lord, I need you. I can't do this alone. Please be with me." Then slowly some answers came to mind. Matthew 25:36 said, "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." This verse in the Bible touches my heart to love and give my time fully for the inmates.
As I refl ect on my journey into prison ministry, I remember that on my fi rst week, I was so nervous knowing that my Visayan language is not good, but I was challenged by my coordinator to speak it. One day, we went to jail to follow up on the profi les of the inmates. My coordinator told me to interview some of them. At the thought of hearing their stories, I was excited to meet them, but at the same time I was nervous. When the fi rst inmate came and sat beside me, I was confi dent enough to greet him with, "maayong buntag, kuya" (good morning, big brother). He responded, and I again said, "kumusta?" (how are you?). He started to talk in the Visayan language, but I only. I didn't introduce myself because my Visayan language is limited. When he heard me talk, he knew that I was still struggling with my language so he started to talk to me in English. I was so happy that he could speak English, but when my coordinator found out that we talked in English she told the inmate not to talk to me in English saying further, "speak Visaya to her so that she can practice too." I laughed and tried to talk in Visaya again. It made my day.
Day after day and week after week, I see in myself the joy every time I encountered them even with my limited language. Laughing and smiling together through the pain they face in jail makes them feel light. Some of their stories are really sad. Some are neglected and abandoned by their own families, but they still have faith in themselves. After hearing their stories, I came to realize how diffi cult it is to cope inside the jail which is so crowded with 2,900 inmates, and the space for them is very small. But they always fi nd space in the chapel to rest and sleep. The chapel is a place for them to have space and have activities like Mass, spiritual workshops, counselling and also a place where I can give them my time. However, the joy I encountered since my fi rst time in prison slowly faded away because of the heat. I respected the law of the prison not to take anything inside. When we started to talk with the inmates I could feel the heat and I started to fan myself with my hand without knowing that one of the inmates excused himself and went looking for fan. When he handed me the fan, I started to be ashamed of myself and tears started to fall from my eyes. I realized that I shouldn't do that in front of them and realizing too that I was just there not even a month but I already started to show signs of giving up just because of the heat and here they are struggling for many years already but they still manage to smile. They taught me a lesson.
Every time I come home, I always go to the chapel and offer my day of joy and pain in front of the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the inmates and also for me to be strong because this helps me to be relieved. I take as a blessing every experience.
In the jail chapel, there is a painting of a priest. Every time I visit the jail, I always pass by it. So one day I asked one of the inmates who the man in the painting is and the inmate answered, "You said you are a Columban Missionary but you don't know him? He is Fr. Chapman, a Columban priest. He loved us so much. He used to hear our confession, provided us food, and he built this chapel." I was so amazed upon hearing Fr. Chapman's story. His story gave me courage to give the inmates more space in my heart. From that time on, I didn't want to live a day without visiting the jail. However there are times I have to attend to other duties so I am unable to visit them which makes me very sad.
After eight months of being a jail volunteer, I started to refl ect and think of what I can do to lessen the heat in the chapel. Through the help of my coordinator, we were able to come up with a renovation plan which is partly to put an insulator on the roof. So I started to save a bit of my own money although I know it's not enough to start the work. Through our prayers and trusting God that He will do the rest, we were able to fi nd some benefactors who helped secure materials for the renovation. Likewise, my ministry coordinator also helped fi nancially so our dream could happen. The inmates helped with the labor, and the renovation went well. Every day, I visited the construction and I can't help but admire the inmates for helping one another in order to complete the work. The renovation work started in September and fi nished in October. It is beautiful, and the heat is less. I fell silent and thank God for what He has done for the sake of the inmates through the generosity of the benefactors. On Sunday, October 29, 2017, which was prison awareness Sunday, the chapel was blessed, to God be the glory.
It's truly a blessing. Words are not enough to express my gratitude. I thank God for making things possible through the generous support of our benefactors, families and friends. I also would like to thank the life of Fr. Chapman who inspired me to give my life fully on mission. I salute my ministry coordinator for mentoring and challenging me each day to do my best and give God the glory and put my trust in Him. To the inmates, thank you for giving me joy and helping me grow each day to be a good missionary and being patient with my limitation to speak the language. To my Columban family, especially my fellow lay missionaries in Mindanao, thank you for being with me here always especially when I feel that life is diffi cult. Last but not the least, I would like to thank my dad for always listening to me, to my mom who is now in heaven for praying for me, and to my siblings for always providing for me when I needed something on my mission. To my nieces and my nephews thank you for always making me smile and happy when I am down. To those who are part of my life journey and those who pray for me, thank you for everything. Without you all I know know I wouldn't be who I am today.
Let God unite us in prayer. May the good Lord bless and guide us always and again. From Matthew 25:36, "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
(Names of persons are deliberately not disclosed in this edited version to protect their identity.)
Columban lay missionary Haiti Muller lives and works in the Philippines.