Prison Fellowship Rwanda Vision Trip

Kristi Padley, PFI Donor Relations Director –

The only words I can muster since my recent return from a Vision Trip to Rwanda are, “My heart is overflowing!” We spent a week with the Prison Fellowship Rwanda team and I am so impressed with how strong they are, the progress of the programs they are running and how they impact the lives of so many prisoners and their families through Jesus’s love.

The Prisoner’s Journey

First, we headed into the Rwamagana Prison where we sat with 15 small groups as they were studying the seventh lesson of The Prisoner’s Journey (TPJ). Our seven PFI guests broke up into groups of two or three and were invited to sit amongst the prisoner groups. Of these 15 groups, only one was led by an external volunteer with prison access while 14 of them were led by internal volunteers (prisoners or corrections staff members who are so moved by the course that they complete an eight-hour training to become a leader). This practice is what sustained TPJ and in-prison ministry around the world during the pandemic. While prisons were closed to external visitors, our programs did not have to stop because God had prepared certified, trained staff on the inside!

Prison Fellowship Rwanda volunteer Francoise, currently the only external TPJ course leader

Each small group leader called on a couple of participants to share what the course has meant to them. Time after time, I heard, “I was living in the darkness, but now because of Jesus and His forgiveness, I am living in the light.” As more prisoners shared, I kept hearing answers of deliverance from darkness and having their burdens lifted as they learned of His forgiveness. One young man shared that he was in prison for stealing a motorbike and he was angry when he was arrested. All he could do was count how many motorbikes he would steal once he was released from prison. He told us that now that he’s nearly completed the program, this desire no longer lives in his heart. He has realized that he must take ownership and responsibility for his crime and because of this, he wants to be a better person once he released from prison.

A rare opportunity to sit among prisoners during TPJ course discussions at Rwamagana Prison

The Child’s Journey

Over the next two days, we spent time around the Kigali and Ngara communities to see ministry activities happening within The Child’s Journey (TCJ), PFI’s signature child sponsorship program. Witnessing local song and dance, health checks and clothing distribution, we played games like Duck-Duck-Goose and Red Rover with the children and staff. Parents, caregivers and children also shared beautiful stories and testimonies of how difficult their life was before the program, and how it has helped them. Through TCJ, children of prisoners are matched with a Christian caseworker to guide them through life, often over the span of many years.

Children sponsored through TCJ receive program services like health checks to ensure wellbeing

One day, I sat in on a group discussion for children aged 12 and over on an important topic: planning for the future. They asked questions like, “Who are your five best friends today? Do they make you feel better about yourself or worse? When making decisions, do you think about who it will impact and could the decision stop you from reaching your goals?” Having the children answer these types of questions allowed them to think about where they are in life, where they want to be and what kind of influence their friends are. Not only does sponsorship provide material items like food and shelter for children, but it also ensures access to opportunities for increasing self-esteem, building hope and improving interpersonal relationships.

Rwandan children and caregivers gathered with smiles and laughter to welcome our group

We loved seeing all the happy faces as we distributed clothes (left) and played games, like jump rope (right)!

Restorative Justice

Many of us on the trip quickly realized how deeply woven the effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are still in the fabric of the nation today. Tanya*, one of the TCJ caseworkers, lost her entire family, including her siblings and parents, to the genocide. A neighbor found her as an infant in a field and raised her as her own. Now, she has found healing and works at Prison Fellowship Rwanda to support children of prisoners with healing of their own. Only God the Father can bring about that kind of healing.

We also got to sit down at dinner with Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza, the Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Rwanda. He is very well known throughout the region for the work he has done to establish reconciliation practices between the Hutus and Tutsis. This includes a longstanding Prison Fellowship Rwanda initiative, Reconciliation Villages*. In these communities, sprawled across the country with 864 homes, genocide survivors and perpetrators live alongside each other. They are places where convicted killers take responsibility for their crimes through reconciliation efforts and survivors and refugees offer forgiveness.

PFI Regional Manager Franck Baby (left), PFI Donor Relations Director Kristi Padley (middle), Prison Fellowship Rwanda Executive Director Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza (right)

Many of the people living in these villages have lived here for over a decade, including Lorince. During the genocide, two of her neighbors helped kill her family. She was pregnant at the time and had an infant, so she ran and hid for a long time. The men got out of prison years later and Prison Fellowship Rwanda invited Lorince’s and the neighbors’ families to live in the village together. When she moved in, she had not yet forgiven those who killed her family. She told us that during the genocide, she promised God that she would serve him if he saved her and her child. She heard God speaking to her, asking to forgive, and so she worked very hard to do so. Her face was beautiful with peace as she told us her story while sitting next to the men who caused her so much harm. It was truly awe-inspiring as only God can soften hearts like that. 

*The Rwandan Reconciliation Villages are unique to Prison Fellowship Rwanda, and I’ve shared this with you because this is incredible restorative justice work. PFI also has efforts to increase the restorative nature of in-prison programming around the world through Sycamore Tree Project (STP). STP is an in-prison course focusing on responsibility, confession, forgiveness and making amends. You can read more about this much-needed work on restorativejustice.org.

Refugee Lorince, who lives in a Reconciliation Village, shares her story

God was truly with us on this Vision Trip to Rwanda as we all came away with hearts overflowing. Prison Fellowship Rwanda is powerfully transforming lives of prisoners, their families and victims of crime across the nation through their own and Jesus’s love. It was an incredible thing for us to witness that impact.

*Name changed for privacy 

 

YVONNE | Rwanda

“I never imagined someone besides my parents would love me this much.”

Children of prisoners are well acquainted with the unexpected twists and turns life can take. One day, they’re a carefree child, and the next their father or mother is ripped from their life and sent to prison. It’s truly amazing the difference one person can make in the life of a child in need.

Fourteen-year-old Yvonne, in Rwanda, knows this firsthand.

We found Yvonne three years ago, living in the care of her older sister, because both of her parents are in prison.

Imagine being an adolescent girl and losing both parents during a time when you need them most. Gone is the security of a parents’ love and the consistency of their presence. What’s worse, in Rwanda children under 18 years of age aren’t even allowed to visit their parents in prison. Yvonne won’t be able to see her parents for another four years, and they won’t be release until she is 28 years old. 

Yvonne’s life is a beautiful, true story of how just one special person (a person like you and me) can transform a life. Yvonne’s supporter has developed a relationship with her, and she recently shared how much this relationship means to her:

“I never imagined someone besides my parents would love me this much.”

Because of that one person, Yvonne is well fed and clothed. A Christian caseworker also visits Yvonne regularly to ensure she lives in safety, has opportunities to interact with peers, be connected to a Christian community, and is able to continue her education.

“I was excited that I was going to study without being chased out [of school],” says Yvonne.

Yvonne’s education is critical in helping her grow into a confident young woman. Her supporter paid Yvonne’s education four years in advance so Yvonne will never have to worry about being able to finish school. But beyond her education, Yvonne couldn’t have imagined what more she would receive through the generosity of someone like you.

“My life has changed. Other children in the neighborhood and at school ask me about my life because they can see how happy I am and how I look good. I tell them that somebody they don’t know loves me.”

 Give Now to Support a Child in Need of Practical Care and God’s Hope

PRISON VISITATION BAN OVERTURNED | Zimbabwe

Prison Visitation Ban Overturned for Children of Prisoners in Zimbabwe

 

Photo: Norman Nyakapadza could not hold back his expression of love for his family, after he enveloped his wife and children in an embrace.

Children of prisoners in Zimbabwe are celebrating after Prison Fellowship Zimbabwe (PFZ), an affiliate of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), successfully lobbied to overturn a prison visitation ban. This is a breakthrough for Zimbabwean children of prisoners under 18 years old, who were not permitted to visit anyone in prison—even their incarcerated parent.

“There is a growing awareness and evidence, globally, of the significant impact on children and inmates when children can visit their parent in prison,” says PFI’s International Director of Child Sponsorship Adam Hutchinson. “Studies show children who maintain a connection with their incarcerated parent report higher feelings of safety, stability, and overall emotional wellbeing. There is always a reduced likelihood of a parent re-offending after release, meaning families are stronger and children are better care for.”

After a series of meetings with the Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Service to present prison visitation as a rehabilitative tool for prisoner behavior, children from five families in PFZ’s children of prisoners program were granted visitation. Some, like 10-year-old Precious, had not seen their fathers in nearly a decade.

“Feedback from these families is that the children’s behavior changed positively and they couldn’t stop talking about such a memorable event,” says Wilson Femayi, PFZ children of prisoners program manager. “The prison social workers also reported a remarkable behavioral change in inmates who met with their families for the first time.”

After the successful trial visitations, government officials agreed to institute an annual visitation week open to all children of prisoners throughout the country. The impact of this decision has encouraged Prison Fellowship International affiliates in Rwanda and Zambia to make similar appeals to their own prison visitation laws, which are already yielding similar results.

About Children of Prisoners Sponsorship:
Prison Fellowship International’s child sponsorship program helps rescue, restore, and rebuild the lives of innocent children of prisoners throughout eight countries. Through one-to-one sponsorship relationships, children receive access to food, medical care, education, safety, and spiritual and emotional support. Prison Fellowship International affiliates deliver these services through partnerships with local government, NGOs, and churches. 

ORNELLA | Rwanda

I Forgive Those Who Massacred My Family

My name is Ornella, and I am a volunteer for The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program in a Rwamagana prison in Rwanda.

My parents were refugees and my other family members were massacred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I couldn’t bear to go to prison and meet some of the perpetrators of the genocide, who killed my relatives. But being trained by Prison Fellowship Rwanda on different topics regarding Bible studies and forgiveness, I decided to forgive them and now I’m able to minister to them.

I participated in the graduation event of Rwamagana prison.

I was especially touched by the testimony given by one graduate who declared the teachings of The Prisoner’s Journey® changed his life.

He used to steal materials that belonged to other inmates. He said, “Since I have started following the course, I’ve stopped sins and repented from all sins I committed against God and the community.”

Help others experience healing through Christ so they may also share God’s message of grace to prisoners around the world.

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DEO | Rwanda

“I Was Totally Healed”

Prison was the last place Pastor Déo Gashagaza wanted to visit. Behind its walls roamed those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, those responsible for killing his 45 Tutsi family members, those who still wanted to kill him.

“I heard God’s voice say, Go into prison,” Pastor Déo said.

“I told God, ‘I can’t go into the prisons unless you give me a love for the genocide prisoners.’”

One year after the massacre of nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, Pastor Déo was the first to enter the prisons and minister to his offenders.

Inside, he was greeted with skepticism and hostility. “[A] minister looked me in the eye and asked me if I was crazy,” Pastor Déo said. “The prisoners said, Oh! How is a guy like this still alive? Why did he not die? Kill him now! One said, ‘Please, let him finish his preaching. Kill him after.’ Inside my heart I remember a quiet prayer: God, you sent me here. Please protect me.”

Pastor Déo preached from Isaiah 61:1 (NIV):

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”

As he spoke, many prisoners wept and rose to protect him. “We can’t kill him,” they said, initiating reconciliation and something even more surprising: friendship.

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By 2001, Rwanda’s 14 jails still overflowed with 125,000 genocide prisoners awaiting trial. Even with a fully functioning legal system, which had largely been wiped out during the genocide, the backlog of cases was estimated to take hundreds of years. The government turned to gacaca, an ancient form of justice where trusted community elders conduct open-air hearings and, with the offenders and the community, decide on a punishment. Unlike the Western justice system, gacaca encourages confession to determine sentencing, which could include additional prison time or community service and reconciliation programs in the communities where they committed crimes.

In 2002, in preparation for the gacaca courts, Pastor Déo led an 80-person team to launch the Umuvumu Tree Project, a modified version of Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project®, an intensive in-prison program that brings together crime victims and unrelated offenders to explore ways to make restitution and begin the healing process. After a successful launch he trained facilitators to implement the program in all of Rwanda’s prisons.

Between 2002 and 2011, 42,000 prisoners and 10,000 community members participated in the program. At first, only 5,000 prisoners admitted their crimes, despite knowing a confession could lead to a lighter sentence—freedom, even. But as the prisoners digested the program’s®, concepts of responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation, they began explaining these ideas to their cellmates. After less than six months, the number of prisoner confessions rose to 32,000. Not only did the project teach healthy, biblical living and bridge victim-offender relationships, it also aided government investigations, as repentant prisoners began revealing where they abandoned their victims. Then the survivors took notice. “You are doing so much for the prisoners,” they said, “but nothing for us.”

As Pastor Déo and Prison Fellowship Rwanda expanded their work outside the prisons in response to the victims’ requests, the country’s healing spread rapidly. In less than a year of working with survivors, many were willing to forgive and began asking for the complete pardon of some of their offenders.

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Prison Fellowship Rwanda has expanded its restoration efforts by partnering with Prison Fellowship International’s child sponsorship program and The Prisoner’s Journey® and discipleship program.

Now 20 years after the genocide, Rwanda continues to heal. Thanks to God and willing servants like Pastor Déo, Rwandans have true hope.

“Prison Fellowship was, for me, my journey of healing,” said Pastor Déo. “During all this time in prison, I was totally healed.”

Help bring hope, healing, and restoration to prisoners and victims. 

ELINA | Rwanda

“I Decided to Forgive” 

Elina is a survivor. She escaped death during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, but many of her family members did not. The emotional pain was so great that prison was the last place she wanted to visit—she couldn’t envision herself in the presence of those responsible for massacring her family.

More than 20 years later, the country is still healing from this national trauma. Prison Fellowship Rwanda has been instrumental in this process, by bringing together victims and prisoners to explore ways to make restitution, heal, and forgive through the Umuvumu Tree Project, a modified version of Prison Fellowship International’s restorative justice program, the Sycamore Tree Project. And now, they continue healing and transformation throughout the prisons through The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program, which invites prisoners to know and accept Jesus as their Savior.

Elina made a bold and brave move to become a trained course facilitator for this The Prisoner’s Journey. Prison Fellowship Rwanda trained her on topics of Bible studies, psychological healing, and forgiveness. This gave Elina the tools she needed to forgive, and bring healing to others.

“I have decided to forgive [the genocide prisoners] through ministering to them,” Elina says.

For over a year, Elina has volunteered every Thursday in prison, facilitating The Prisoner’s Journey  eight week study through the Gospel of Mark.

“I am very glad that prisoners who have followed these courses are discovering a relationship with Christ and coming to know themselves and their sins. They repent and proceed to the forgiveness process, during which they are helped to meet the families of victims and ask for forgiveness. This leads to unity, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence.”

Help others around the world experience Christ’s forgiveness. 

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THEONESTE | Rwanda

Reassured that Nothing is Impossible with God

Theoneste’s father is in prison and his mother suffers from a mental illness, which leaves her often confused and keeps her housebound.

The weight of the family now rests on Theoneste’s older sister Jaqueline. She dropped out of school to care for her mom and siblings, and struggles to keep food on the table and her siblings in school. On top of responsibilities beyond her age, she’s afraid she or her siblings may fall prey to sex trafficking or child labor. Without a stable home and an adult to care for them, their risk is high.

Our child sponsorship program brought much relief to the family through support and safety.

When Theoneste was enrolled in our child sponsorship program, the family also benefitted. They receive regular food supplies and financial assistance so he and his siblings can continue attending school. Relief and hope are now a part of this family’s reality. Where they once worried how they would get by each day, they now have reassurance that nothing is impossible with God.

Give a child like Theoneste a reason to hope again. 

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SERGE | Rwanda

No Longer Helpless and Alone 

Serge never imagined his father would be taken to prison. His world collapsed. He and his brothers relied on his mother for care and comfort, and frequently asked her to take them to visit their father in prison. Sometimes, she would take them. But one morning, Serge awoke to find his mother gone. A day, and then a week passed. Later, he discovered she abandoned them and fled to a neighboring country.

Helpless and alone, Serge and his brothers were taken in by their grandfather when he realized they had no one else to turn to. But still, they struggled to survive. They had to drop out of school, because they couldn’t pay the fees or afford to provide other basic necessities.

Our child sponsorship program is giving the family the extra support they need so they can receive put food on the table, stay healthy, go back to school, and hear the Word of God.

Now, with care and regular visits from a local caseworker, Serge is happier, learning in school, and feels loved. His grandfather says he is especially thankful the children are learning the Word of God with other kids, which is also helping them heal emotionally.

Give a child like Serge the opportunity for emotional healing and an education.

Give a Child of a Prisoner the Gift of Hope

Learn more about our child sponsorship program.

OPPORTUNE | Rwanda

“I would have Called it Luck”

Opportune’s mother Mujawamariya Goreth is a seamstress and struggles to support them both on her meager income, as her husband is in prison. Goreth wants to give her child everything she needs to thrive—especially a good education. But at Opportune’s current school, she doesn’t get the attention she needs to succeed. Opportune excels in math, but struggles with English, which continues to decline.

“I’d do anything to get my daughter a better education,” says Goreth.

Goreth said this dream seemed impossible until our child sponsorship program recently launched in Rwanda. Goreth and Opportune receive extra support through food, medical care, educational support, and regular visits from a local caseworker to monitor their situation. And when local staff learned Goreth sews school uniforms, they helped her expand her business. This gave Goreth and Opportune the financial boost they needed and, next year, Opportune is enrolling in a new school.

“We no longer feel alone,” says Opportune’s mom. “We have a family. I just see it as a miracle!”

Help a child like Opportune have a brighter future.

Give a Child of a Prisoner the Gift of Hope

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UMUTONI | Rwanda

Six years ago, Umutoni’s father was taken to prison. Umutoni’s mother became haunted by the idea of her husband rotting in prison, and she could not stand the thought of him being gone for so long. Overcome by despair, she abandoned Umutoni and her sister with their uncle, Zachariah.

Despite Zachariah’s hard life and heavy responsibilities, he welcomed them into his family of three children, his mother, and his wife. But the family struggled with poverty. Providing for basic needs and paying school fees was impossible.

Umutoni dreamed of becoming a pilot, but felt her dream slipping away. She deeply felt the absence of her parents and her future was unknown if she couldn’t continue going to school.

But then the family was introduced to our child sponsorship program. Zachariah says if it wasn’t for the program, he wouldn’t have been able to continue supporting his nieces.

Umutoni says she felt loved and cared for immediately upon entering the program—she hadn’t had someone ask if she’d had breakfast in a long time.

Today, this quiet nine year old is again determined to become a pilot. She attends school and her materials are provided. She also receives food and medical assistance, and caseworkers visit her regularly.

The whole family wholeheartedly thanks Prison Fellowship International not only for lifting many burdens from their shoulders, but also for their example and outreach which led Zachariah to restore his relationship with Christ.

Help keep a child like Umutoni’s dreams alive.

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