Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mawelawela Women’s Correctional Institution

I had the most amazing morning this morning. I was one of about 10 women from different denominations who visited Mawelawela Women’s prison to bring the inmates gifts, cakes, and worship with them. Unfortunately, this is one of those occasions when even if I could have taken pictures, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. This was the time to experience the moment up close and personal, not behind the lens of a camera.

I have never been to a prison before. I so admire people who do prison ministry, but the thought of it scares me to death. I think mainly because I wouldn’t know what to say or do and I am afraid I would say or do the wrong thing. So the way the Lord gets me to reach out to those who are imprisoned is to bring me to Africa, put me in a prayer/fellowship group of women who go at least once a year. The words “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Mt 25:45) kept going through my head. So I graciously accepted the invitation to go. I was nervous at the first thought of it, but I went with a deep sense of peace.

The prison is nestled in the hills out in the countryside of Swaziland. It is in the middle of very fertile farmland. We have had so much rain that everything was green and beautiful. We pulled into the prison and on top of the green gardens and hillsides there were beautiful multi-colored flowers and plants lining the road and path ways to the various buildings. Everything was kept very trim and clean. The guards and wardens were very pleasant and welcoming to us. They all had on a green skirt suite uniform with a black hat. They were very official looking and very impressive. Their welcoming smiles and greetings were very incongruent with their formal appearance. There were the obvious signs that we were in a prison - the tall fence with lots of razor wire looped around the top and the two sets of locked doors we had to walk through to get into the prison courtyard, which was also beautifully maintained.

There were about 60 women. All were dressed in a burnt orangeish-brown dress uniform. (Pants are generally not acceptable dress for women in Swaziland.) The funniest part was that those who were wearing sweaters under their uniform had a black and white striped sweater on under their uniform. If a prisoner has a child under the age of two when she is sent to prison or if she gives birth while in prison, the child stays with the mother until she is two when she must leave to stay with relatives. There were close to a dozen children under the age of 2 present.

We had our worship and fellowship in the dining hall. When we entered it, everyone was sitting patiently at the tables. There were guards sitting around the perimeter. The room was simple, with a high pitched ceiling and furniture that was anchored to the floor. The room had windows on three sides. The room was spotless. You could have eaten off of the floor. We brought in boxes and bags full of cakes, cookies, individual size bags of chips as well as individual bags each containing a washcloth, soap, Vaseline (for their skin) and a little booklet with a testimony about turning one’s life over to Christ. We also had stuffed animals and baby clothes for the children.

After we got everything situated, we started singing praise songs. The prisoners led the singing. As I watched the prisoners and guards joining in praise and worship, singing and dancing I could hardly contain my tears. The joy on many of the women’s hearts was overwhelming. The dancing of some of the guards and the warden is something you would just have to see to believe. We sang a couple of American praise songs and a couple of Christmas carols. There were a couple of testimonies and a short scripture reading with a sermon of sorts. When we were finished, the ladies came in a line to receive their gifts and so we could give each one of them a hug. Then they got plates and piled them high with cakes and cookies. And then it was quiet.

The women were so genuinely happy to have the time to worship. I think they were probably also so eager for that personal touch – the hug with the few simple words of “God Bless you.” It was so hard not to cry. I enjoyed receiving each and every hug as much as I enjoyed giving them. We were there for probably 2 ½ hours. In black Africa, you just can’t worship God in anything under that! On our way out, the Warden proudly showed us the building where the ladies sleep and the crèche for the children. I think the time there was as much of a lift for the guards and wardens as it was for the women. It was a prison and while I saw many sad eyes I saw so much love and gratefulness on the faces of each woman – inmate or guard. In a way I would have loved to hear each of their stories, because you know they all have them. But on the other hand, that wasn’t what I was there fore. Their story is really irrelevant. They are a child of God away from their family. That is all that matters.

I thought we would have some one on one time with the women, which not only frightened me because I wasn’t sure what I would say, but I was looking forward to it. We didn’t really have that one on one time, but the time we shared in song, dancing and worship was so precious. I wish you could see the video that is stored in my brain and in my heart. This was just one more day that I felt so honoured to be in Swaziland receiving God’s gift of love and fellowship.

Praise be to God!

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