As part of my role as Youth Minister the Church has agreed I can spend some of my time serving as a volunteer Chaplain at Oakhill Secure Training Centre (STC), a custodial facility which houses 80 male young offenders from 12-17 yrs old. I visit Oakhill once or twice a week for 2 hours at a time during the trainees mid-day break from their full-time education. The aim is to provide a listening ear, the opportunity to discuss matters of life & faith, and a chance to pray.
I’ve been on the Chaplaincy team at Oakhill for over a year now and often describe it as hard work. Not because the trainees are out of control or because it’s a scary environment to work it, nothing could be further from the truth. I describe it as hard work because I often spend 2 hours struggling to engage the trainees in any kind of conversation (however trivial), and rarely manage to maintain a conversation for more than a few minutes. Partly that’s due to the trainees’ desire to simply chill out during their lunch break, other times it’s because we’re battling against loud music from the TV in the social area.
Before I entered the centre yesterday I prayed ‘Lord, bless this time & have Your way; let conversation flow…’
I had intended to visit one of the units I’ve been assigned to recently: a unit I’ve found to be more welcoming & easier to engage. I was, in all honesty, looking forward to an easier session than usual. But upon arrival the Chaplain asked me to visit one of my long-standing units; one I have struggled with from time to time. Of course, I agreed. He said a number of the trainees from the unit had attended the Chapel service at the end of the week and some had stood to pray with the preacher at the end of the service, and he was keen for me to do some follow-up with them. He used the phrase ‘something is going on…’ – how right he was…
On entering the unit I was greeted by a different atmosphere. Sometimes I can sense tension immediately, sometimes a scepticism, and occasionally some hostility. But yesterday I was greeted, and greeted well. Not just by the Officers, but by every single trainee without exception (unusual). Not just by a quick response to my ‘hey, how are you?’, but by a genuine welcome, and a ‘you ok?’ back (unheard of!). I didn’t have time to be taken aback before the conversation did indeed start to flow.
One guy came up in my face (always unnerving) and was asking about what he should say before meals: ‘I know I should pray, but what should I pray?’. He’d been discussing it with his mate and they were arguing about the right way to say grace before they eat. One felt it was right to say ‘thank you’ with his head bowed, eyes closed and hands together, the other agreed about the physical approach but asked God to ‘bless this food to me’. We had a brief discussion about the fact that the food at the Centre ‘may not be great, but it provides all that we need to thrive’. That’s unheard of too – the food is usually rated as ‘worse than school dinners’ (an unfair view, in my opinion).
One Muslim trainee disappeared to his room excitedly and came back wearing his new ‘prayer gown’. We spent some time discussing it, trying to remember what it was called, joined by another trainee who wanted to know what it was for and when he should wear it.
Over lunch (a time which is usually fairly quiet because they like to eat quickly & leave) we had discussions about Church history, the reformation and the protestant movement (you really couldn’t make this up!). I was asked whether swearing was ok for a Christian to do, and before I could answer another trainee jumped in and asked ‘what about smoking? that’s a sin, isn’t it!’. I shared my view and we talked about how hard it is to intentionally stop swearing when you’re so used to doing it – and they shared about how they’d tried, but it was even harder to do ‘on the inside’.
One trainee asked what Christians’ attitude to Muslims should be, suggesting that they were enemies and asking if it was right to fight. I reminded them that they regularly see the Centre Chaplain (Baptist Minister) and the Imam chatting over lunch and pointed out that they believe very different things but are still able to be friendly (in fact they’re friends outside of the Centre). So we discussed Jesus’ call to ‘love your enemies & pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5). That came as a surprise to him, and his response was ‘wow, that’s so hard’ and I agreed with him.
As you can imagine, peer-pressure & bullying are closely monitored and managed in the STC. But as the trainees were preparing to return to education for the afternoon and we were all waiting ‘patiently’ at the end of the corridor, one of the trainees turn to another and said ‘hey, you should become a Christian too’. At that moment the radio signal came permitting the unit to move to education; I picked myself up off the floor and left with them and that was the end of my session.
What a surprise. What a transformation!
Please pray for the trainees who prayed with the preacher last week. It’s going to be so hard for them to sustain their new found faith & even harder to put it into practice. Pray that they would find the strength they need to stand up, stand out & be different, and to resist the temptation to fall back into old ways.
“Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17