A Chaplain is an ordained minister sent by his/her church to work in prison. Thus, chaplains are dependent on two institutions – both the church as well as public authority. This entails double responsibility for the chaplains. Due to security considerations, there are many specific rules in prison that a chaplain has to follow.
There are three prisons in Estonia – in Tallinn, in Tartu, and Viru prison in East Estonia. Since not all denominations are represented among chaplains in every prison, and, what is even more important, there are, for example, no Muslim or Buddhist cleric either, so chaplains are involved in mediating literature and visits of these religions as well.
Chaplains hold weekly worship services, offer Bible study and confirmation classes, organize concerts. Parallel services and Bible studies for Protestants as well as for Orthodox believers are held. The relative importance of Orthodox believers is great because most of the Russian inmates associate themselves with Orthodoxy.
About half of chaplains’ work is to hold pastoral conversations. Many inmates are worried about their loved ones; there are daily life and communication problems with other inmates as well as with prison guards. Ending up in prison causes crisis in one’s soul – feelings of guilt, questioning whether forgiveness is possible for me, but also – how to forgive myself? Experiencing distress in one’s soul leads many people to reconsider the choices they have previously made.
For those willing to reflect on their life, time in prison is an opportunity to turn a new page for them. Those who wish can complete their education – it is possible to obtain adult gymnasium as well as vocational school diploma in prison. Russian inmates can learn the Estonian language. Those who have decided to give their lives to God, attend church faithfully: Bible study classes, prayer and whatever kind of gatherings chaplains are offering – the main thing for them is that they can come to the church. They are confident in their choice and testify that faith in God is the most important factor in their lives that helps them to live differently. Earnest believers have no major problems nor conflicts with other inmates or prison orders anymore.
Of course, there are those, for whom it is not that easy. Even if they come to faith, there are fluctuations in their life this way and that way. The reason for this is that many inmates have very harsh backgrounds. Often it is the rejection experienced in their childhood and youth that would influence all the following events in their lives. A typical story is that since there was no one to love them, they were searching for the company – unfortunately finding it among substance abusers. Under the influence of addictive substances, things have been done that would have been left undone if one had been sober. Many of them lack the social network of people coping with their own lives and willing to support them. After coming to faith, one has to start acquiring new habits and patterns. Some people manage to do it better; others have many setbacks.
What motivates me to do this work? On the one hand, I see that during the course of the years I have acquired a lot of knowledge about pastoral care and I can benefit from it in my current work now – not a year I have studied these things have been in vain. And on the other hand, I experience that God is really present here in prison. Often while having conversations with inmates or praying for them, I see that there are tears in their eyes, they experience the touch of God. Though I sometimes experience spiritual resistance while conducting worship service, I have always experienced the powerful presence of God and His anointing. I acknowledge that I would not do this work in my own strength, but only through the grace of God and in His power. Only if I hold on to God, I am able to be a mediator between people and God.
In the gospel of Matthew, there are these words of Jesus: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.“ (Matthew 25:36b) Is Jesus really in prison? Indeed: here He is! He is together with every broken heart who is crying for help in his/her anguish; He is present in every worship service where His name is lifted up and proclaimed. He is right there where the power of darkness seems to be the greatest.
What does it mean to us as Christians? First, I have realized that before Christ’s judgment I am not going to get away any easier than anybody else. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And all are justified freely by His grace through redemption (Romans 3:24). Therefore, there are no smaller or bigger sins. There is the sin with its consequence, which is death; and there is redemption through Christ – and its consequence is life. When I realize that, I am not going to place myself above others to judge them. Second, for us as believers, it means that there are a lot of people in prison who might be given a second chance. God is willing to do that – but are we as human beings ready for this? Do we have that much Christ’s love in us to listen to these broken souls, to teach and guide them with love, for example, if they are released from prison and they would come to our congregation? Do we have this persistence to look after them how they are doing (of course, at the same time one must not lose alertness and has to be still careful), and encourage and correct them if necessary – and do this all in love?
Just recently I talked to one inmate, who is a believer but has no close relatives himself. I realized that God’s congregation could be this family of his, that he himself doesn’t have. But are we willing to be this family, who is waiting for the lost son to come back home?
Written by Maire Latvala, Chaplain in Tartu prison
Editor’s note: Maire serves with college Olavi Ilumets in the Tartu prison. We are give thanks for their ministry.