Behind Prison Bars
Romanian Adventists spotlight prison ministries.
By George Uba
No one is beyond the reach of God, even those serving time in prison—people who have robbed, murdered, and abused others. They too are of inestimable value to our heavenly Father, and we are instructed in Matthew 25 not to neglect them (see verses 31-46). The Adventist Church in Romania is taking that commission seriously.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Romanian Union of Seventh-day Adventists founded an institution for prison ministries—The Humanitarian Service for Prisons (HSP). Pastors as well as volunteer laypeople are dedicated to this mission service and are sharing the gospel message with prisoners serving sentences in Romanian prisons. Adventist pastor Lucian Cristescu, initiator of the HSP program, as well as coordinators in the union’s six conferences, hundreds of volunteers, and mission-minded individuals in the United States, assist with and support the flourishing program.
The coordinators and volunteers first deliver Bibles to the prisoners, followed by the distribution of The Desire of Ages and other books printed specially for the HSP program. Thousands of these books have already been given to prisoners.
As financial support increases, the program continues to grow. Since an HSP coordinating director was installed at the Romanian Union level in 2005, the number of program volunteers has increased from 450 to 1,200.
The Humanitarian Service for Prisons is recognized as one of the strongest humanitarian organizations in Romania. It is currently operating in 42 prisons and two prison hospital wards, out of a total of 44 prisons and five prison hospital wards that exist in Romania today. Coordinators of the six branches of HSP—the six conferences in the union—convene regularly with leaders of the union’s Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department to make plans and develop projects to meet the prisoners’ needs.
One venture, now in the final stages of development, challenges local churches to “adopt” a prison and meet the various needs of the prisoners and prison administrators. Adopting a prison includes holding health exhibitions, job-skill training courses, stop-smoking seminars, and Bible studies.
HSP has also developed a Bible correspondence course, which has a current enrollment of more than 1,500 students. Organizers are expecting enrollment to double in 2008.
These intensive efforts are resulting in changed lives and prisoners accepting Jesus as their Friend and Savior. In the last few months 13 prisoners have been baptized, nine of them serving life sentences. More than 200 others have expressed a desire to be baptized.
Hundreds of church members correspond by mail with prisoners in all 42 prisons, and their numerous visits to them often lead to the development of strong relationships for spiritual and emotional support.
HSP coordinators also understand the importance of maintaining relationships between prisoners and their children.
“During the meetings with the women from Moldova prisons, while studying about family,” says Mihai Enea, assistant HSP director in the Moldavia Conference, “we were frequently asked this question: ‘Am I still a mother?’
“We would ask them in return, ‘What makes you believe that you are no longer a mother?’ Their answer, usually given with tears, was, ‘What kind of a mother am I if my children are growing up in orphanages or in different families? I deserve my sentence, but where is the fault of my children? I haven’t seen them for years…. Do they even still know me? What are their feelings about me?’”
Enea says he often asks himself what Jesus would do if He were in his place. “Many times I have asked the Lord this question in my personal prayers,” he says. “But one thing I am sure of—these mothers deserve a second chance.” So he and other coordinators organize opportunities for children to visit their mothers in prison.
Enea describes a partnership with the Botosani Penitentiary and the Department of Child Protection on a project that emphasizes the needs of prisoners’ families. After identifying numerous women prisoners who had not seen their children for a long time, HSP coordinators set up a visit. Enea clearly remembers the experience.
“We cannot forget the moment when the children…who were placed in different foster families, living in different counties, were all meeting together [with their mothers] for the first time in three or four years,” he says. “When the mothers entered the hall and saw their own children, it was a dramatic moment. They were crying, not knowing [which of their children] to embrace first.”
But although most of the families were overjoyed to see one another again, not all the reunions were happy ones. A 14-year-old boy named Ionut said he did not want to talk to his mother, Enea explained. His mother tried to offer him a gift, but he refused it and asked, “Why did you abandon me? Why do I have to be raised by a stranger?”
These are the types of challenges HSP tries to help families work through together.
Expanding Its Vision
HSP is now establishing a center for social reintegration at Buciumeni in Dambovita County. The facility will be equipped to accommodate 16 people at a time, for a period of up to six months. The center’s staff will aid the emotional and spiritual recovery of prisoners released into society and assist with the social and professional reintegration of former prisoners who have neither families nor shelter. Along with this project, HSP has plans to develop another center on donated property in Targsor, Dambovita County, for social reintegration of former women prisoners.
It is encouraging to see former prisoners who are now sharing their love of Jesus with others and serving as HSP volunteers, business owners, church officers, social workers, and in various other fields.
We are all “prisoners” on this earth, but soon—when Jesus comes to take us home with Him to heaven—we will meet our loved ones again. The mothers will look for their children. The children will run to their mothers and their fathers. But until then, we in the Romanian Union do what we can to offer hope and joy to those behind prison bars.
George Uba is director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the Romanian Union.