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24 April 2015

A visit to an Ethiopian prison

A visit to an Ethiopian prison

by David Smith

There are some moments that really stick with you, aren't there? Profound moments that remind you that what you're doing has a purpose that goes far, far beyond paying the bills.

As head of international programme at Bible Society I'm blessed. I get a lot of those moments.

I have the real privilege of working with colleagues in 146 countries, and I spend a lot of my time asking them to dream dreams and then listening to their answers.

Then I spend a lot more time seeing those dreams become a reality. Just recently, this happened in Ethiopia. For the last five years we've been working among its 70,000-strong prison population.

Ethiopia is a place that I've found particularly humbling. It's an amazing country where as many as 60 million of the 96 million-strong population are Christians.

Today, the Ethiopian government views Bible Society as an organization –perhaps the only one in the country - that can bring the churches and Christian organisations together. That's tremendously exciting.

But on the particular day in question you wouldn't know any of that. We'd driven for a few hours to get out of the hubbub and traffic chaos that is Addis Ababa. We'd arrived at a prison in Nazret, a town named after the home of Jesus.

The prison held some 500 men and boys. We were going to distribute Bibles to them, something that happens on a regular basis. The prisoners themselves asked for it and we've been so pleased to be able to answer their need.

The prison was an extraordinary place. It wasn't like anything that we would recognize as a prison in the UK, but more like a village. It bustled with activity, like the markets in the many towns we'd passed through on the Addis to Nazret road.

But from the inside, looking outwards, there could be no confusion: the 20-foot wall topped with razor wire around the compound made sure of that.

Inside, the prisoners had built churches for themselves. They weren't just rooms set aside for prayer. They were physical buildings within the main prison building.

True to form, the evangelical church was like a mini Gospel Hall, the kind you still find where I grew up in the west of Scotland.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the other hand was a grander affair –lovingly constructed by many of the prison population who, like the country itself, are majority Orthodox. Colourful yellow and blue walls and a steeply-sloping roof led up to a gleaming white cross that could be seen from anywhere inside the prison.

I was asked to preach in both churches. I can tell you now it was one of the most terrifying and rewarding experiences of my life. What could I possibly say that would be useful to prisoners in Ethiopia? It struck me that I was talking to prisoners in a place called Nazret. So I talked about the passage from Luke, the one in which Jesus announces the start of his ministry by reading Isaiah in the Synagogue which he probably grew up in.

The passage speaks of good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, releasing the oppressed, the year of the Lord's favour, and yes, the setting free of captives. I talked about how Jesus of Nazareth represented that freedom. I felt utterly inadequate.

But I was surrounded by smiling faces. It was a very humbling experience for me. But it was also the realization of long-term work.

At Bible Society we have a passion for enabling people who want the Bible to get it. That's particularly true of the elderly, children and prisoners: people for whom there may be extra barriers in place that prevent them from getting or reading the Bible.

It's not just happening in Ethiopia. It's happening everywhere. In Canada, hardly a day goes by without a prison chaplain getting a request for a Bible from an inmate.

In Papua New Guinea our team is teaching prisoners to read and write.

And in the UK, we even have a Bible specifically for prisoners. The Freedom Bible takes up the theme from Isaiah and highlights some 3,500 verses that speak of freedom.

We distribute it to inmates who ask for it with the help of Prison Fellowship. With more than 84,000 prisoners in the UK, this is a very big task.

That moment inside Nazret's prison is one that I'm likely to remember for the rest of my life. It spoke of the freedom that God offers in Christ;our common humanity;and the hope people find in the Bible. It's a motivation for everything that I do.

David Smith is head of international programme at Bible Society

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