Prision Fellowship International (PFI), one of the biggest ministries engaged with prisoners, held its international council meeting titled "living hope" in Hong Kong. This year, over 200 members from 116 countries gathered, shared visions and encouraged one another.
Having been the Chief Executive Officer of PFI for 25 years, Ronald W. Nikkel has visited over 700 prisons all over the world. Before leaving Hong Kong, Ronald W. Nikkel took time out for an exclusive interview with Gospel Post Hong Kong, where he explained the visions and the new goals of PFI. The following are excerpts from an interview with Ronald:
1. What does PFI do? How does it help prisoners?
What PFI doing is a movement of people around the world, motivated by the love of Jesus, to spread the love of Jesus to prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families and the victims of crimes. We also try to advocate justice and mercy. How do we help the prisoners? This varies from country to country but the core is being friends with prisoners. Most of the prisoners don't have friends. Their families leave them. They have family problems. No one visits them. So, a lot of them are alone and depressed. So, we took them as friends in the love of Jesus by caring for them. To some countries, caring means providing with the food, medical assistance (because they are suffering) or visiting their families (because they cannot do anything to help their families).
Now, it is a movement of 150 countries, including Hong Kong.
2. After this council meeting, will there be any new focus of PFI ?
Our focus varies from country to country. We have a program called sycamore tree project, which is designed to help offenders to become sensitive to the victims and understand the impacts of their crimes. It also helps the victims to learn how to forgive. So, we bring victims and offenders together to talk about the impacts, their feelings and their hurts, to see each other as people and to be sensitive to each other. Very often, the offenders through the process can reach out to the victims to seek forgiveness. Sometimes, the victims will reach out to the offenders to restart their relationship. It has a huge impact, especially in New Zealand and England.
The other thing we are doing is community restoration which is to create faith communities inside the prisons all over the world so that men and women who desire to be serious with their faith can live together in the community inside the prison and role as in the discipleship process to learn to take the responsibilities for themselves.
It has demonstrated to be very effective. It is very difficult for most people to live as believers in the prison without support. So, these faith based communities are communities of restoration in prisons and this is a powerful way for them to support one another, to grow their faith and to come out of the prison experience more positively.
3. Prisons from which countries do you think have the biggest needs? Why do you think so?
I would say the prisons of Africa, for several reasons. One of the tremendous impacts are HIV/AIDS in prisons. There are tuberculosis and other diseases as well. We are working extensively in Africa with medical projects because there is no medical care for prisoners. That is a deep concern for us.
Also, I was speaking to a lady who was in the conference from Madagascar. She told me about the growing problem of malnutrition in prisons. People are in fact starving to death in Madagascar everyday.
I have talked to people in prisons of Africa-not only in Africa, but also in other areas where people can be in prison five years or eight years, without going to trials. So, justice moves slowly and often justice is corrupted. If you are poor or you are from marginal lines or minority groups, you can¡¦t get justice. So, it is a compound problem.
4. What do you think Christians can do to help prisoners?
I think those who are not in those countries can pray. I would not say it¡¦s a weapon. It is the most powerful force we have for good.
I think we can give and support our brothers and sisters in Africa and countries from around the world. Because most of the people who work in prison fellowship are themselves poor. So, they lack the resources. They do what they can but they do lack the resources to make the impacts needed.
We have volunteers to visit various countries. This is very helpful. We have doctors from Singapore. We have people who have other skills like engineering skills, agricultural skills, manufacturing skills. They go to Africa to do things like prison industries. We have a group from Korea that has a wheelchair factory in Malawi. That is exciting because most of the prisoners have nothing to do and they are bored. You can¡¦t help when their minds keep imagining things in all kinds of wrong areas. You have to keep them busy.
This idea of wheelchair factory came from a ministry in Korea. So, there are a lot we could do if we wake up and use our creativity and generosity and respond to the needs.
5. It is reported that up to now, you have visited over 700 prisons. Among all the visits, which is the most unforgettable one?
There are so many of them. I guess most recently was the visit to Madagascar for salvation and the diseases problems. It was just a few months ago.
I went there and we had sent a big shipment of medicine but it was stuck in the custom¡¦s hall. The customs would not release the medicine because the minister of finance would need money. Meanwhile, people in the prisons are dying. So, two from prison fellowship with some people from the media had a press conference and I talked about what they have seen in prisons. We had seen people who were dying and the medicine that would have saved them was in the custom¡¦s hall. It had been there for 3 weeks. We¡¦ve got to get them early. The media was very helpful. They put pressure on the ministry of finance to get the medicine released.
Seeing situations like that, we can¡¦t make a difference but there is so much bureaucracy sometimes. There is so much resistance to bringing help to prisoners.
Experiencing a breakthrough is always exciting. To me, what exciting actually is, beyond that, we see a group of 10 or 12 women who go to prison everyday. They are poor women but they put together the little resources they had, like a little bit of rice or whatever food they were donated. They cooked a meal for the most hungry in prisons everyday. They are the poor giving others their poverty and making tremendous differences.
6. What impacts do you expect this council meeting bring to PFI members?
Mutual encouragement, to reaffirm our mission and to reaffirm our visions.
I think the most important thing is that they were encouraged because alone they worked. In most of the countries around the world, especially the developing countries, there isn't a lot of support for any ministry engaged for offenders. They keep working alone without encouragement from churches. Very often, they don¡¦t get a lot of support financially. I think a lot of people get lonely. You don¡¦t see a lot of success.
We come together like this to celebrate our light of Christ, to share our common calling. And people coming all over the world to here can feel that "I am not alone. We are together" and I think that is the biggest impact. In this conference, I expect to see people to take their missions with new enthusiasms and new visions.
7. How about you yourselves? What have you got from this council meeting?
I am always amazed to meet the people in our community. Among us, we had judges, lawyers and ex-prisoners- people from all rocks of life. I get encouraged. So, I expect the people to be encouraged. But I really get encouraged more than anybody, by seeing God rising up people around the world to have mercy to prisoners.