You Have Loved Us - The Least of Men

“This feels like revival,” was one of the comments received from one of the participants partway through our Sex-Offender Treatment Program in Naboro prison – a six-week journey of soul-bearing self-examination leading many to brokenness. From such a place one can discover the realisation of horrific destruction or incredible healing; for many of these sex-offenders both outcomes had become a reality. But a question remained - For men feared and regarded as the ‘least of the least’ in our societies is a ‘revival’ really possible?

 “How long are we stuck in this program for?” was the opening question, asked with force and hostility at the start of the six weeks. The group of 41 men were closed off and reluctant to engage. Knowing that this is inevitable for any non-voluntary program in prison, the first couple of weeks were spent engineering the dynamics of the group towards a buying-in of this journey together. As spirituality is the most common ground between anyone in Fiji, a faith-based starting point became familiar and respected ground by each member of the group. Finally after ten days, the questions were no longer combative, but demonstrative of a curiosity and then an ownership of the journey.

Every sinner has subconsciously formed a narrative of self-justification and sex-offenders are no exception. As long as this narrative stands in the way of truth and accountability the process of rehabilitation is impossible. Our goal was to create a dissonance between each man and their self-justification narrative and this was accomplished by leading with our vulnerability, and building the safe space for painful self-examination. As the narratives broke down we came upon many unaddressed point of brokenness, each contributing to the path of dysfunction and sin. For many of these men, abuse they experienced at a young age were places of unaddressed brokenness.

 “I haven’t slept all night because God has shown me my own story,” said one man soberly the day after an intense case study. He then stood in front of the group and shared how he could trace the beginning of his long story of sexual deviation to his abuse at five years old. This ownership of what he’d done was soon shared by the rest of the group as different men began to disclose the destruction they were responsible for, some of which they had denied for years.

An important aspect of this treatment program, one we can all learn from, is the Mercy of God. It is in God’s mercy that true justice is satisfied; and for these despised men who found themselves lost in a cycle of destruction, this truth was the most exciting. “You have loved us – the least of men,” was the tearful prayer on the final day.

 Operation Foundation is engaged in the treatment for those who have committed sexual crimes against others. Phase-2 treatment will begin with these 41 men in June 2019.

The Islands Reveal Their Beauty and Challenge

The journey began with the announcement that while we could now board, our bags could not be loaded onto the small plane with us - collectively we were too heavy! In the chorus of complaints from my fellow passengers, I sat rather bemused for in my overweight bag was all the StepOut-StepFree materials and thus the purpose of the trip.

I'm not sure how it was resolved but soon after we, and our baggage, were safely aloft over a blue sea heading towards the island of Taveuni. If that was the end of the misadventure then this would be a simple story but in picking up my overweight suitcase from the makeshift carousel I felt a tweak in my back and immediately thought, 'I'll pay for that later' and I did.

Taveuni-The Garden Island is Fiji's third largest island and known for its remarkable beauty. Unique for its lack of outlying reefs this large volcanic island mountain is home to 12,000 people that live in small villages around the coast with Somosomo village being the main centre. Its colonial history is one of large and profitable copra estates, but richer are the long histories of its people who developed their livelihood and traditions in the midst of some of the most beautiful and bountiful creation.

Tevita Rainibogi has begun Operation Foundation's work in Taveuni Prison and lives in Somosomo village with his wife and two children. While I went ahead on Saturday to start the StepOut-StepFree class on Monday, the rest of the team were scheduled to arrive by ferry Sunday and Monday afternoon. 

Twelve men had been selected to be part of the StepOut-StepFree journey and on Monday, with increasing lower back pain, I met them all and we began. Taveuni Prison has incredible views (see photo above) and is a working farm producing amazing crops in the fertile soils. In delivering a program to restore the soul, the Taveuni environment really doesn't get any better with images and applications of God's handiwork all around. Bringing twelve men together and opening up deep and confronting issues always has risks, so it was a joy to see them begin to dialogue, engage and open up to what we were leading them towards.

By Monday afternoon my lower back was screaming its defiance and so a hospital visit was in order where a cocktail of relief was administered to a sensitive part of my anatomy. A fog of numbness enveloped me as we walked down the hill to find a taxi.

The next day was a blur for me but gain for the team as they undertook what they love to do - leading the men through a journey of restoration. The conversations among the men and team got richer and deeper, exposing the pain, guilt and suffering that exists in each offender's life. Shaping those conversations towards true forgiveness, restoration and hope is the goal of the team's effort.

Leaving Eroni Tulele, Malakai Karavaki, and Tevita Rainibogi to continue with the class, Jeff McFarlane, Aisake Emmanuel and I departed Taveuni on Thursday morning by ferry for the nearby island of Vanua Levu - home to Savusavu and Labasa towns and Labasa Prison. The purpose of this part of the trip was to visit ex-inmates and families of the inmates we had worked with, from this class, and other classes over recent months.

Over the next two days, we visited with eight families, listening, sharing and providing prayerful and practical encouragement. These visits are profound and humbling - rich in what it teaches us of the critical connection between inmates and their families. We will provide support to many of these families over the next months, assisting them to travel to keep the familial connection to their Sons, Husbands and Dads in prison.

Arriving Friday in Labasa we completed visits and went to the Labasa Prison to provide a family update to Alipate, an inmate we have worked with who is shouldering the responsibility of his own family restoration.

I'm proud of the work undertaken by Tevita in Taveuni, Aisake in Savusavu, and Gabrieli in Labasa, for Operation Foundation. Throughout this year they have worked diligently to both establish and progress restoration ministry in the northern prisons and the in the associated communities.

Not to be done with misadventure, Jeff and I discovered Labasa town log-jammed with Saturday morning traffic as we attempted to get to the airport and our flight home to Suva. With the minutes counting down our taxi-driver Amlesh took on the persona of a rally driver on dirt backroads to eject us safely at Labasa airport, my back still intact and a few minutes to spare.

Your encouragement and support has widened our scope and increased our effectiveness. Thank you for the commitment to see restoration enabled in the lives of men and women in-prison and beyond. ~ Peter Schultz

Sharing - The Profound Impact

What is it to share? - What is the Impact?

When we think of sharing what comes to mind is the 'giving away' - the freedom to pass on something of value; large or small. In this simple act of exchange one is the giver and one is the receiver with a mutual benefit for both from what is shared.

Our cultures have many expressions of the value of sharing. In Pacific cultures, the high value of community means that there is an easy sharing of items and knowledge so as to deepen the expression and bonds of mutuality. In Western cultures, despite our independent personal identities we encourage children not to be selfish by upholding the act of sharing, going on as adults to participate and celebrate philanthropic acts. Universally there is a high value on acts of selflessness that are the conduit of sharing.

In Labasa Prison, twelve inmates had gathered to be part of the StepOut-StepFree journey. This was the first time that we had run this class in this prison as our work in 'the north' is new and developing. As the sessions continued we could see both the confrontation and excitement in the men's faces. The comments typically were 'this is going deep' and 'why have I never heard/seen this before' 

We were aware of the discussions taking place each evening in the dormitories as the men went back and shared what they were learning. What we didn't know was the profound impact of what was unfolding. 

When a truth is shared it becomes good news; filling hungry souls with the possibilities of new things, new freedom, new potential. One of the men in the dormitory heard his inmate brothers sharing new truth from the class and it became a 'good' to his crushed heart.

All sin wants to remain hidden and this man's sin was that he had taken life, the life of another, which is an act of selfish destruction. Deeply convicted of his sin and seeing the truth of what had been shared as a gift to him, he went from denying to disclosing, from bondage to freedom. 

I still don't know all the details but I can see the Spirit of God at work; sharing His work of the conviction of sin (John 16:7-8). I can see the stronghold of selfishness became defeated by a humble sharing - one to another. The result is that one man was lifted out of the miry clay - that's profound impact!

What can you share today?

The Power of Story

The team sat glued - time had lost its importance! What had us captivated was a story, not any story but the story of a young lady who had persevered through a trial of immense proportion. We had invited M... to come and share with us as a team, six days after her release.

Claiming innocence yet sentenced to seven years. We saw this young mum and her baby enter the prison and begin the long journey. From dislocation, separation, humiliation and grief; so much lost yet, in the darkest of places the discovery of a new hope and abiding fellowship in Christ that became a strength to her, and her family.

We listened to the journey of learning how to be thankful in the face of crushing discouragement, gratitude in the face of loss, worship in the adversity of rejection. In spite of the roughness of the prison, God filled her with a gentle and quiet spirit that became a strength to so many of her fellow inmates. Her actions in faith were inspiring and real.

Listening, we also saw that the raw pain of the long struggle was real and there were many tears shed and shared in the re-telling. Being a new mother inside prison added to the challenges that she faced. This lady served five years and nine months before being acquitted of all charges and finally walked free. But freedom is only the beginning of a new struggle around the realities of now rebuilding life, livelihood and relationships.

What we celebrate is the secure foundation she found in faith and how that was activated in her day-to-day life. What M... celebrated was how the OF Team supported her with relationship, integrity, and consistency. Without M... being aware these are three of our core values that had been active in her ongoing support and growth.

Listening to M...'s story has provided the team with deeper insights and renewed joy in God's redemptive story. We share it with you as an encouragement of all that God is capable of doing in a young woman's life, who came to prison worshipping idols and left sharing the testimony of the reality of Jesus Christ.

And The Blind Will See

Statistics show us that the overwhelming majority of women and men in prison have suffered significant trauma in their lives. Most often this negatively impacts behaviour, attitudes and relationships. The team have just finished facilitating two Trauma Healing Groups in the prison on Taveuni Island. Here is a testimony of one of those men who has now recovered his spiritual sight.

Name: P... |  Age: 52yrs | Vanua: Island of Koro

There were nine of us siblings altogether and I was the middle child. I was also the smallest of all my brothers and sisters. My father rejected me and I was left to fend for myself from a very young age. I had to look for my own school fees and bus fare, often resorting every Saturday to my skills as a coconut gatherer and copra cutter. I was often called names, some even saying that I was not from the Island. These things hurt me deeply.

Because of all this, I decided that I was going to run away from the village by taking the next boat out. I left for school one morning and crossed over the island to where the boat from Suva normally berthed and went on it never to return.

When my parents and siblings found out I was already on my way out. I worked on the boat for 6 years – Suva, Levuka, Koro, Savusavu.

I joined Fiji Pine in Lautoka for 5 years. I thought I would be relieved of this pain I felt, by joining this new venture, but there was no relief. I had friends and was able to afford things, but they gave me no peace. I worked for the Coral Reef, a New Zealand company for 3 years, but it did not bring me the peace I sought.

I worked for a Backpackers Resort for 19 years and had my share of money, women and booze but they did not satisfy me one bit. It was in this situation that the whole thing blew up on me and I ended up in prison. Now the very thing I wanted the most that set me out on my journey from my island of Koro – FREEDOM, was taken away from me.

When I finally heard what was being taught/shared in the class these few days, I then realised that I was trying to suppress my suffering and all the pain and the hurt from being rejected by my own family, especially my father. The class has made me aware of the issues of heart wounds and the steps of personal responsibility and forgiveness to begin to be healed.

I did not think I can do this, but I am able to share my life story because of the freedom I now have in Christ! The class has really helped me look at my situation in a new and healthy ways – I have a new beginning!

When Jesus said in Luke 4:18-19 that He had come to give recovery of sight to the blind, it is men like P... who cry out in worship as they see past their bondage and pain, to new freedom in repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal.

Celebrate with us and P... his spiritual awakening, and thank you for the support that has made his testimony possible.

He Eats With Sinners

The accusation was meant to condemn, and from that condemnation would hopefully emerge widespread rejection. ‘He eats with sinners’, was attempting to establish the familiar ground of ‘us and them’.

What was so shocking was that one who called himself Son of God, Holy, and Righteous, was willing, in fact making a habit of being in the company of them, those from the rough and despised part of society.

That battleground was historical and I can read the scriptures in that same historical way. But I can see the same patterns re-attempting to strangle the strength of our gospel even today?

When I was in prison, I came to realise that the appeal of Jesus was universal. Many of my fellow prisoners understood the reality and hope in that simple accusation, ‘He eats with sinners’. It spoke to a hope that somewhere in all their confusion and mess Jesus was for them, he was accessible.

In their understanding, Jesus was definitely confronting, but his humility was as attractive as ice cream on a hot day. In fact, Jesus Christ’s humility was beautifully prohesied, not as ice-cream, but as being so gentle he would not bruise a reed, and as we read the gospel account we see the fulfillment of that.

This humility is what we as team aspire to. It is one of our core values and leads us on many occasions to pull up a chair at a table and eat with sinners. But if humility and witness could be established just by eating together then I’d just be asking for second breakfasts.

The story from which we read of this accusation against Jesus is recorded in three of the four gospels and references both tax-collectors and sinners. Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew the importance of the telling of this accusation, its importance for what it revealed then, and perhaps also for what it reveals about our religious systems now.

I believe the accusation was more aimed at Christ’s posture and purpose than the actual sharing of a meal together. To eat a meal with someone down-trodden, someone in a lesser position, is often seen to be good - a good deed. However, the accusation was meant to redefine what was becoming attractive, even perhaps what could have become a new normal.

We are now in the time of Lent, where we are encouraged to forgo something for the purpose of a greater focus on Jesus Christ and his ultimate sacrifice. As you fast can I also plant the idea of taking up a sacrifice of mercy.

Will you throw open your table, fire up the BBQ, break out the wine, and invite sinners into your presence? There is no greater time to introduce Christ to a world that is becoming fascinated by the idea of ‘us and them’.

Jesus is attractive to sinners when we, as hosts of the gospel, make ourselves accessible in our common settings. 

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Matthew 9:10-14

Peter Schultz