Young Voices

Broken like me

Broken like me

Volunteering in the prison fellowship ministry

“I am thankful I got caught because otherwise I would have just continued what I was doing.”

“Actually, we can be thankful that we have food and a roof over our heads.”

These are snippets of what inmates have shared with me in my short time volunteering with the prison fellowship ministry.

The story begins sometime in late 2020, shortly before Covid-19 hit. I had borrowed and read Jason Wong’s Trash of Society: Setting Captives Free. The book traces the author’s journey of faith and work, including, among other things, his substantive contributions to the Yellow Ribbon Project and his years in the Singapore Prison Service. It revealed to me a compelling alternative vision of hope and flourishing even in the midst of what most reasonable persons would consider to be a terrible state of affairs—imprisonment. After some prayer and reflection, I signed up as a volunteer with Prison Fellowship Singapore, to support their work despite being relatively young compared to the typical volunteer in this ministry, as I only came to realise subsequently.

Even though I have some understanding of the criminal justice system in Singapore, I was fairly unsure about what to expect in my first few Christian Counselling sessions with the inmates. That was (and is) not helped by the fact that on most occasions, I would be the youngest person in the room. Thankfully, with the guidance of my buddy (who is much more experienced and winsome than I), I have grown to become more familiar with the setting and expectations. The sessions typically comprise three segments—worship, Bible study and discussion where time permits—not unlike most cell-group gatherings we would be familiar with. Most of the inmates who attend grew up in a Christian background or came to Christ in the course of their imprisonment sentence, and attend these sessions by choice.

In this connection, two things stood out as I reflected upon my volunteering experience.

First, these inmates that I met are in many ways similar to me—most notably and crucially, sinful and broken. Whilst most of us may not have committed crimes or been imprisoned as such, the reality I have come to increasingly (but not yet fully) appreciate is that, without exception, all have fallen short of the glory of God. There is absolutely no room for moral high ground or any standing before God apart from the singular work of Christ on the Cross. None of this should be misconstrued as a flippant view of crime and punishment. However, without traversing the obviously complex terrain that is criminology, my modest view is that as Christians we should be slow to cast the proverbial stone at any of these inmates. Here I am reminded of the fundamental truth of the imago Dei and the pithy words of Timothy Keller from his book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Second, we are called to seek the shalom or peace of the community we live in. This calling is outlined in Jeremiah 29:1-7. Briefly, the Israelites were in exile in Babylon but instead of “rescuing them”, God instructed them to build houses, plant gardens, take wives and have children, among other things. The common thread here is that the various acts involves embedding or committing oneself to a place. Jeremiah goes on to behove the Israelites to seek the welfare of Babylon for therein, they will find their welfare, before setting out God’s promise that he has a plan and future for those in exile.

We, too, are sojourners here for a finite span of time. Culture often peddles the dubious narrative that idolises fleeting relationships, frenetic activity and new-fangled interests over faithful, consistent “day-in, day-out” commitment. I suspect that for young persons, that narrative takes on a particular sheen. Jeremiah instead encourages us to sink roots in our communities even where it is difficult. A significant part of this, in my view, entails looking at the felt needs in our community, and discerning where and how we can each make a contribution to its welfare, particularly in respect of the forgotten and downtrodden.

It is sometimes tempting to think of God’s calling as something extraordinary—however, if we pay closer attention, there are many ordinary, simple but no less powerful ways of glorifying God. I trust that whatever your contribution, you, too will be ministered to in the process.

Alfie Lim
Alfie Lim

Alfie Lim is a 28-year-old lawyer and serves in the Youth Ministry at Christalite Methodist Chapel. / Photo courtesy of Alfie Lim