Photo: Colour lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26 1788, drawn in 1888. Creator: E. Le Bihan
The distinctive about chaplaincy in general is that it is Christian ministry in the public sphere. It is Christian pastoral care in a sphere that we do not own. As such, the agenda we bring is often very different to the agenda of the people who allow us into their space—the hospital executive or the Corrective Services officer. And sometimes those who do own the space have a different agenda to that of the chaplain.
It has ever been thus. European settlement in Australia started in 1788. Included in the personnel of the First Fleet was a chaplain, the Rev Richard Johnson. When the second chaplain, the Rev Samuel Marsden, was appointed in 1794, he brought with him a letter from John Newton (the man who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’) to Johnson, assuring him that Marsden was not coming to usurp his role but to ‘share with him the title of Apostle to the South Seas’.
Government appointed these chaplains with the instruction that they were to ‘preach on moral subjects’. The governor believed that in a penal colony with criminals and hardened military personnel, a chaplain could bring a sense of decency and order by confining his activities to moral instruction. But Johnson, Marsden and their backers envisioned their role as something much broader—as ‘apostles to the South Seas’.
Inevitably these two different expectations of the role of a chaplain must be held in tension. They took their toll on Johnson, who retired back to England in 1800, and they brought Marsden into a considerable amount of conflict. A chaplain, therefore, needs to be careful, to be wise and discerning.
When I became a prison chaplain at the Remand Centre in Sydney, people often asked me, ‘What does a prison chaplain do?’ As I reflected on this question I realised the best answer was, ‘I don’t do anything. I just watch the Holy Spirit at work.’ Of course, I did actually do things, like running Bible study groups during the week, chapel on Sundays, responding to requests for various things from the inmates and ministering to the staff. But as I reflected I realised I spent a lot of my day walking around in the inmates’ living areas, in the yard and in the workshops. In these places I would seek to engage people in conversation. More often than not, they would engage me. They would take the initiative to start a conversation.
Photo: By Sardaka (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)
As I was walking through, they would call me over and ask things like, ‘David, tell me about the resurrection, will you?’ –questions I was always happy to respond to. On one occasion a fellow stopped me as I was walking through their living area and asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’. I said ‘Yes! I’m the chaplain! I believe in God.’ He then shared with me a couple of dreams he had had. Religious things had happened in these dreams. He didn’t know what these dreams meant and wondered if God was trying to tell him something. He didn’t know what to do and wasn’t sure if God cared for him.
As I tried to help him think this through he realised that God had probably given him these dreams. He realised that here we were, having a conversation about God and that these coincidences were more than likely worked out by God to show him that God does in fact care for him. I watched this man’s face as he realised that God cared for him, and it was like seeing a light switched on.
This man was in his early 20s, and had spent his time delivering drugs around the world. He had arrived in Australia from South America with a suitcase full of drugs, been arrested and was now in gaol awaiting trial. He had known nothing else in his adult life. Now, at this point, he encountered God and his whole life changed. In prison he began to study theology. He was responsible for the conversion of several other inmates. He started a prison choir. He’s now out of prison, attends church regularly, is married with a child and runs a successful business.
What do chaplains do? They have conversations. It is the Holy Spirit who does the work.
On another occasion an inmate asked me about prayer. He said that he had been praying and praying and nothing was happening. He had been born in Australia but was from a Vietnamese background and was nominally Buddhist. He said he had given up. He had stopped wearing his Buddhist amulets. He asked me what he should do.
Chaplains in public spaces are forbidden by government authority to proselytise. Would I be proselytising if I spoke about Jesus to the young Buddhist man asking about prayer? He had approached me. He knew I was the Christian chaplain. I told him that from a Christian perspective, it was about a personal relationship with Jesus. If, at this point, he had said to me, ‘Don’t talk to me about Jesus. I want to know about Buddhist prayer’, I would have told him that I knew nothing about that but that I could ask the Buddhist chaplain to speak with him. What actually happened, as I spoke of a personal relationship with Jesus, was that the young man leant forward, almost poked me in the chest with his pointed finger and said, ‘I want that!’ I continued a conversation with this young man over the next few weeks and he committed his life to follow Jesus. I baptised him in the prison chapel. And the Lord in His graciousness began to answer this young man’s prayers.
I tell you these two stories because these sorts of conversations happen every day in a prison. Recently a senior minister in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney wrote that he had had what he described as an amazing conversation about the Lord Jesus and the deep issues of life with a person he had met. He wrote about this conversation because in his ministry it was so unusual. He said in the article that he might have such a meaningful conversation about once every five years. The experience of a chaplain in the Remand Centre is that these types of conversations happen every day.
Questions that prisoners ask of a chaplain in the Remand Centre usually revolve around the same issue: ‘Where is God?’ Remand is a place of great turmoil, anxiety and uncertainty. From wondering whether further charges are going to be thrown at them, to what the jury and the judge will be like, life is full of uncertainty until the final determination of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ is given. In fact it is amazing to see men on remand change when they finally have a determination from the court. A major crime can take two years to get to this point but even where the determination is ‘guilty’ and there is a long prison term imposed, a person changes suddenly; there is no more uncertainty. But as long as that uncertainty is there, inmates continue to ask questions about life, wondering if God really does care for them enough to answer their prayers.
I moved from the Remand Centre in Sydney to the prison at Lithgow—a maximum security gaol where most prisoners are serving long sentences. Generally, they no longer have the anxiety of uncertainty and the questions that go with that. They are settling down to do their time and the question changes from ‘Where is God?’ to ‘How can I be forgiven?’
Those who ask this question understand they have done something terrible. And so they ask, ‘How can I be forgiven?’ Many of them, referring to their crime, say, ‘It just wasn’t me. I don’t understand why I did that. How can I move on from that crime?’ Some prisoners asking about forgiveness have committed horrendous crimes, and they acknowledge this. For whatever reason the crime was committed in the first place—perhaps they got in with the wrong crowd—they now recognise the stupidity, or horror, of their actions at the time.
The questions prisoners ask, whether they are about where God might be or whether an individual can have personal forgiveness, are the all-important questions of life. This is the great privilege of the chaplain. Being in the public sphere where these questions are asked, the chaplain has the opportunity to provide some answers. We are in a place we don’t own, but we are there because we actually have the answers to these major questions of life.
The chaplain in the public sphere has the opportunity, not to bring judgement on people and insist that they must repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, but to listen. It is a great privilege of the chaplain in the public sphere to listen to the stories of people’s lives; to understand what has been happening for people and to point out to them how God has been interacting with them through their lives as you listen with the eye of faith and see God’s hand in their lives.
Prison is a unique context, and chaplaincy in prisons is intense and rewarding. People are forced to face matters that are easily brushed aside in the busyness of normal life—the meaning of life, sin, judgement, repentance, forgiveness—matters that point questioners to God. People get converted in prison. There are genuine, life-changing conversions. Christian chaplains have the privilege of being part of this work of God, bringing the good news of Jesus into this often hidden part of the public sphere.
 John Newton, Letter to the Rev Richard Johnson 24 May 1793. NSWHR Vol. 2. p27.
 Indeed, Samuel Marsden took up that vision. Having preached the first Christian sermon in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1814, he is regarded in that country as the ‘Apostle to the Maori’.
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