We had driven south from Johannesburg for about an hour. There were five of us in an 8-seater van, and the countryside we were driving through looked remarkably like rural Australia. While you don’t see African men and women walking along Australia’s country roads carrying loads on their heads, it wasn’t too hard to imagine you were back in Australia.
We were on our way to a South African government correctional facility with Pastor Willie Dengler. As well as pastoring Mayfield Baptist Church in Johannesburg, Willie also heads up World Hope Ministries in Africa, which ministers into 170 of South Africa’s 240 prisons. This was a regular journey for Willie as he visited the church inside the prison—set up in part through the ministry of World Hope.
Today’s visit was going to be special, however.
We stopped in a country town at a McDonald’s for breakfast; here we met two African pastors and five members of a Christian rock band. They were travelling in two pickup trucks holding their drum kit, public address system, and guitars. They were going to play at the morning’s church service to be held in the prison.
Stepping into a Gaol
We arrived at the prison, where we were met by the chaplain, who helped us through the complicated process of registering ourselves as visitors. We had our hands stamped, and prominent ID cards were hung around our necks. I was more than happy to have everything I needed to make sure they would let me out of prison at the end of the morning.
Once inside the main gate, some of the inmates helped us carry the band’s equipment into the hall for the service. Prisoners in South Africa wear orange uniforms with black lettering. Each uniform is supposed to be identical, but it was obvious that some of the inmates had given their uniforms personal touches. Often this was by shifting buttons around or cutting the sleeves differently.
As we walked through the prison grounds, we saw shifting furniture and inmates cutting grass with whippersnappers. I suddenly realized how out of place I must have looked. Here I was, a white guy from Australia in street clothes, walking with twenty or so orange-clad prisoners in a South African gaol (prison), with all of us carrying various bits of musical instruments, a public address system, and a child’s swimming pool. The swimming pool was to be used for a baptismal service after the main worship time.
Worshipping inside the Gaol
The worship service was held in a large hall, which looked like it could hold at least one thousand men. There were two rows of fixed benches running the full length of the hall, with fixed seats that swiveled from underneath them so you could sit and use the bench for eating or writing.
At one end of the hall a boxing ring with the ropes removed was used as the stage. We all began setting up. Willie had brought communion glasses, grape juice, and some loaves of bread—they were going to celebrate both communion and baptism. The child’s swimming pool was left outside, and two inmates found a garden hose to fill it with water.
As the guys plugged in the public address system and set up their instruments, the inmates started arriving. They were keen to talk with us, and at first this was quite awkward. We knew this was a maximum security prison, which meant that the majority of the inmates were here for crimes such as murder or manslaughter and were unlikely to be released for thirty to forty years. Willie had no qualms—“Just go and talk to them,” he said.
As the hall filled, a couple of the men started singing. I had learned that singing and dancing come far more naturally to African men than it does to white Australian males in their late fifties!
After a few bars, the whole congregation joined in. To hear African voices singing praises to God is an amazing experience. There was a 4-part harmony immediately, but other harmony lines and dancing were added as they sang. The words were in Sueto, one of the thirteen official languages in South Africa.
Soon, the two African pastors, who had joined us at breakfast, took the lead over the public address system. To my ears, it sounded like a well-rehearsed choir, with the two African pastors acting as song leaders. While they all knew the song, it was nonetheless a quite spontaneous breaking into song that would come to characterize this and our next visit to South Africa’s prisons.
The prison church was organized by a committee of inmates. Willie said this was only a recent event since prison authorities had not allowed inmates to meet together in committees or organizing groups for any reason. As I watched the leaders organise the men into their rows and then move into the service proper, I was amazed at how smoothly it all went.
We all had to speak with our Australian English translated into Sueto by one of the members of the prison church committee. At first, it was hard to get used to the need to stop after each sentence and allow the translator to repeat what you had said; however, the translators were used to it and made allowances for us visiting amateurs.
Communion and Baptism
At the end of the service, communion was served. We were asked to hold the bread and glasses at the front while each man came forward to take a piece of bread and a glass of juice. Another member of Willie’s team kept refilling the glasses as they were emptied.
It was a privilege to greet each man and offer him the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Even in gaol, the truth of the message of the Lord’s Supper and what it signified—that through Christ’s death on the cross, we can all be made right through him—could impact every person, no matter what he or she had done.
The child’s swimming pool was now full on the concrete path outside the hall. Willie invited all the men to move outside; he asked those who were being baptised to line up.
World Hope Ministries runs a discipleship course in prison which leads each person to the point of baptism. The course is run by the prison church committee; however, Pastor Willie is called on to do the baptizing a few times each year. Bible Society NSW supplies the Bibles that the men are given partway through the course.
As we gathered around the pool, the men again started singing. Those being baptized stripped down to their shorts and stood in a line. Willie prayed for them as a group and invited each man to step into the pool. As he prayed individually for each man, he bent him backwards and baptized him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It was the most amazing baptism service I will likely ever see. Fifty-one men stepped into the water that day, making a statement to their fellow inmates that they would follow Jesus and seek to live a life of glory to him—even in prison.
After packing up, we started walking back to the gates—again with inmates helping by carrying pieces of equipment.
As we approached the main gate, an inmate fell into step beside me and thanked me for coming. “Can you give me something?” he quietly asked. I wondered what he wanted. “Can I have your pen? We don’t get many writing materials in here,” he said.
I wondered for a moment what to do. The last thing I wanted to do was to jeopardise Willie’s ministry. Was giving a prisoner a pen considered contraband? Was it against prison rules? But then I thought, what harm could a pen do?
I decided that rather than handing it to him, I would pull the pen and some other things out of my shirt pocket and let the pen drop to the ground. I thought I was probably being a wimp. Why not just hand it to him? The wimp side of me won, however, and he readily picked the pen up from the ground. He nodded his thanks and we went our separate ways.
I’ve thought a lot about the men I met that day. I can still see their faces: the older man whose glasses I held as he was baptised by Willie; the man who joked with me that he was coming to Sydney so he could hear me tell him more about my story; the man who asked me if I knew what had happened to the photograph that another visiting ministry group had taken of him; and the man to whom I gave the pen.
I’m not sure what heaven will be like. Maybe I will see them again. This I know—that I was inspired by their worship and their commitment to their faith inside what must be one of the hardest places on earth to maintain a witness for Jesus Christ.