In praise of ‘angels’ in dark places

In praise of ‘angels’ in dark places

On the eve of Prisons Week (13-19 October), Spurgeons Chief Executive Ross Hendry invokes the compassion, hope and inclusiveness brought by those ‘angel’ volunteers in our prisons

Spurgeons’ Chief Executive Ross Hendry

Prisons are not nice places. That may seem an obvious statement, but one that needs to be restated. Spurgeons works in a dozen prisons across England and so I have reason to visit quite a number through my work; I have been given a tour of many of the estates and met countless residents.

The language I use here is intentional because it is the current vocabulary used by those who are involved in the prison service. It’s language that sanitises the place, the experience and the crimes that have been committed. It does not reflect reality. Nearly every prison I have been in is grim. They are spiritually, emotionally and sometimes even physically, dark, oppressive, hopeless places. Every time I go inside I have to emotionally and spiritually prepare myself for the experience. 

As someone who loves the gospel and the good news that is centred on the cross and Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice, which means a loving God can forgive my sin, the Holy Spirit often challenges my own heart that is quick to dismiss the possibility of redemption for 82,000 prisoners in England and Wales.

Patience, understanding and kind attention

And it is very easy to forget the impact on the families of those prisoners. There are almost 100,000 children with a parent in prison. Children like Alex and Philip who accompanied their mum Gill to visit dad in prison. The journey was 2 hours each way and all were visibly stressed and distressed by each visit. Alex got very angry with his mum, and Philip’s behaviour was disruptive and destructive.

Thanks to the patience, understanding, and kind attention of the visitor centre team I know well, the children started to settle and Mum began to trust that, for once, here were some people who weren’t judging her as a mother, weren’t tut-tutting at or looking down their noses at her children. She recognised they were there to help and comfort her, to include rather than exclude her family and generally give them some hope.

The team there have worked hard to help dad improve his relationship with the family, and through its work with the ‘Love Norwich’ church partnership, Spurgeons was able to provide Gill with a food parcel and vouchers to help with a Christmas dinner for the family. The Christmas story continues to be one of good news.

Love, compassion and sacrifice

Love, compassion, and sacrifice transforms. It does not blot out transgressions, or deny past truths. It can be redemptive. That is our experience as Christians, and it is why so many churches and followers of Jesus are the ones to be found bringing light into these dark places.

Recently, a book called Stand Against Injustice was brought to my attention. It was written by Michelle Diskin Bates, the sister of Barry George, who was wrongly convicted (and acquitted after an appeal and retrial) for the murder of TV personality Jill Dando.

In her book Michelle writes: “The Visitors’ Centre is run by the children’s charity Spurgeons, staffed by volunteers, aka ‘Angels’. They do a wonderful job of supporting all the people who come through the centre, especially those with children who find themselves having to pass through the high security environment. Those Angels lend a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on, as I know from my own experience. There is no praise high enough for these kind-hearted people.”

I have never come across any member of staff or volunteer who works in a prison that would describe themselves as an angel. And yet when people show kindness, respect and compassion I suspect that we share angel-like qualities of proclaiming, giving others a glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking through this broken world; it’s a headline of the good news our saviour wants others to hear and experience.

Light and hope

It is often volunteers who are at the heart of so many amazing stories of light and hope in prisons and I thank God for each of them. They give their time serving where I would be reluctant to put myself. They bring a healing touch to so many lives that are hurting.

Over the next week there are two opportunities for us to celebrate and give thanks to these angels.

On Friday 11 October many charities across the country will be taking part in a national campaign called #YouMadeItHappen and thanking their volunteers for all that they do. Perhaps you could thank someone you know who volunteers. They won’t expect praise – but I’m certain it will be a lovely encouragement.

The second opportunity is to support Prisons Week (#pw19) which runs from 13-19 October. For 40 years Prisons Week has brought together Christian organisations and churches to generate prayer for all those involved in the criminal justice system. Why not seek out their resources and follow their prayers during the week. Better still, get your church to do the same. You never know, through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, you might be moved yourself to partner our plain-clothed angels in the dark places that are not beyond God’s love and redemption.

This blog first appeared as Ross Hendry’s monthly column in The Church of England Newspaper