The tears rolled down my face as I watched them. The more I wiped them away, the greater the flow. Why was I crying? Was it that I had found some new friends from the Bomana Women's Prison? Was I crying because it would be difficult to see them often? Was I crying because I knew many of them were ostracised from their families, maybe never seeing their children again? Was I crying for little Nicolas, who would shortly be taken from his mum and given to his grandparents while his mother served the rest of her term in prison? Was I crying out of joy as I watched my students from Pacific Adventist University (PAU) as they ministered to this group of women inmates from the local jail? Was I crying because I had seen such transformation in my students? They had ministered to the women in the prison for five weeks, teaching them to sing as a choir, improving their literacy skills and giving basic lessons on health and nutrition. The transformation wasn't just in my students, it was in the inmates as well. Maybe I was crying for all these reasons.
As the Bomana women sang in beautiful harmony under the direction of Pelenaise Baleilekutu, I watched Ma. Her face was worn and troubled, but her eyes were bright and aware. She was in jail for murder. What had provoked this intelligent woman to inflict a mortal wound on her husband? How many of her husband's girlfriends was she expected to entertain before she could take no more? She longed to see her five children, but the relatives had deserted her and refused to allow her children to visit.
I looked at new friend, Ta. It is strange how you can make a friend in two hours. During the church service, she and the wardens had allowed me to take Nicolas home for a drink, to find some biscuits and to play. His smile and laughter would brighten up any room. He had no idea that, in a few months time, he would be taken from his mother. I looked round the room. I wasn't the only one crying. The wardens were trying--unsuccessfully--not to be caught up in the emotions. PAU lecturers and members of the administration were using sleeves, tissues, and hems of skirts to wipe away the tears. They understood the significance of this occasion. PAU was ministering outwardly rather than inwardly. The experience had changed us all.
I watched Leeroy Elisha, one of the lecturers from the School of Education at PAU. He was slightly nodding his head; his plan seemed to be working. He had been instrumental in starting STEP-- Service Type Education Program--for the second-year education students. Instead of the normal prac teaching in a school, students were assigned to different educational programs in the community.
I had also caught the vision as I visited the students working and teaching with Salvation Army Code School that targets school dropouts. Students at the National AIDS Council were overwhelmed as they comforted and taught basic skills to AIDS patients. The Drama Team were busy writing and performing plays to educate the community about AIDS. It was at the Red Cross Special Educational Centre and the Cheshire Homes that our students learned patience, as many had to learn sign language to educate the deaf children. Others had to learn how to deal with deformed and limbless students. Other students were in the local villages teaching basic literacy stills after attending a two-week literacy course supported by ADRA.
The experience with STEP had empowered our students. They could now face their academic difficulties and school-fee problems. They now had a vision of what it meant to be a teacher. Hard work and faithfulness was for a purpose.
I looked at the other women in the group. Some were in jail for murder and others for embezzlement. What type of situation had provoked these women to commit such crimes? Were they threatened by others to steal? Had someone stolen their meagre resources? Did they have hungry children they could not feed?
The answers to these questions were numerous but the consequences were direct. They were now considered outcasts of society, rejected and isolated. I took time to reflect: What would I have done in their circumstances?
I cried for my new friends. I cried for myself, knowing I have a reliable, well-paid job, knowing I can support my family. The question is, what should I do now? I could continue to visit them in jail; I could send food and clothing; I could send gifts to the children. Yet most importantly, I could continue to tell them that we loved them and God loved them even more. I could also tell my students that I was proud of them and their efforts. They need to know they are precious to me--but more importantly, precious to God. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24. Jillian Thiele is dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Pacific Adventist University, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.