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.
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
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)!
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: Justice and Peace®: Justice and Peace (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