Ministry Behind Bars
Preaching freedom to captives
By Daniel Weber
A CONTAGIOUS FAITH: Sentenced to life in prison, Valentin effectively shares his faith with a captive audience.This could be a typical scene from anywhere in the world: a group of Adventist believers singing and sharing their faith, celebrating new lives provided by a loving Savior. But this group is unlike most others in the church. These believers will never set foot outside the small compound they now worship in. They have been forgiven by God, but society requires them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
A Community in Transition
The country of Moldova is a picturesque landscape nestled between the mountains of southern Ukraine and northern Romania. The streets of Chisinau, its capital, are similar to many cities and towns around the world. Children play in the park while holding balloons, young people gather in small groups visiting and laughing, families enjoy a bright sunny day. These images are so common they might be taken for granted.
This former Soviet republic has undergone a drastic transformation during the past 20 years. Yet despite all the changes, Moldova is still considered one of the poorest countries in Europe. People work hard, most of them in agriculture or government. They enjoy spending time with their families. Most people belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, but for many religion is more about tradition than experience. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has more than 11,000 members, a population ratio of one Adventist for every 390 people—one of the best in the entire Euro-Asia Division. Despite this growth, however, there are still many challenges.
Seventh-day Adventists in Moldova have found ways not only to spread the gospel, but to make a difference in their communities. One of these is Pavel Girleanu. In addition to the three churches he pastors, Girleanu works in seven prisons in Moldova. He does everything from arranging and holding church services in small, cramped cells, to arranging “family days” at prisons and detention centers. Girleanu is making a difference in the lives of people whom society wants to forget.
Help for “the Least of These”—and Their Families
Girleanu arranges for groups of families to visit women’s prisons around Moldova. The smiles onthe faces of wo-men at seeing th-eir children for the first time in months show how much they appreciate all that Girleanu and his helpers are doing. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency provides volunteers, transportation for family members, and personal hygiene kits for the prisoners. Family members often break down in tears as the emotions of months of separation come to the surface. Although it’s a simple act of kindness, it’s a perfect example of how the church provides relief to those in need. Just as Christ helped people without judging them for their sins, Girleanu’s efforts are another way Christ is represented here on earth.
PRISON PREACHER: Pavel Girleanu (center) preaches to a group of believers who worship in a cell in Chisinau. In addition to his prison ministry, Girleanu leads three Adventist congregations.Girleanu has taken a special interest in a group most people would avoid. Inside a small cell that serves as his chapel, Girleanu leads a small group of prisoners in prayer and Bible reading. Sabbath school consists of a lively discussion, as this is the first time the group has been able to meet in nearly six months.
Outside the window of the cell, a courtyard gives glimpses of the lonely life these prisoners lead. All of them will spend the rest of their lives in desolation and despair; that is, unless they get the chance to talk to Valentin. He sits at the back of the group of prisoners as they start their church service. Valentin became a Christian, then an Adventist while serving a 14-year prison sentence. As he neared the end of his sentence, he felt compelled to confess all of his prior crimes, earning him a life sentence.
Valentin has not been afraid to share his faith with his fellow prisoners. He converted his first cell mate. Frustrated prison officials gave him a new cell mate, who soon became a Christian. Again they changed cell mates and the next person was converted. Valentin’s faith is contagious.
Recently Valentin was present at the baptism of a fellow prisoner. When the man came out of the water, Valentin hugged him to welcome him into God’s family. By accepting the man, considered a member of the lowest class of prison society, Valentin has been labeled an outcast by his fellow prisoners. He’s not allowed to touch or even talk to his fellow believers for fear they will be ostracized as well. But the men in this cell owe Valentin a debt of gratitude, for he was the one who brought each of them to Christ.
“He has given me this responsibility for a reason,” says Valentin. “The Word of God says we should be witnesses, His witnesses.”
The prisoners are thankful for the new lives they have been given by Christ. Despite all they’ve done, these men now lead new lives.
WITNESSING WITHOUT WALLS:While in prison, Zakir, a former Muslim, asked an Adventist pastor to visit his family, many of whom have now become Adventists.Another prisoner is Zakir, from Turkmenistan, a country in which the Adventist Church has a very small presence. Zakir was a Muslim; when he converted to Christianity his family in Turkmenistan abandoned him. He hasn’t seen a family member in almost 15 years.
Still, Zakir contacted the president of the Adventist Church in Turkmenistan and asked him to visit his family. The president visited Zakir’s relatives and developed a relationship with them. Several have now joined the church and are making plans to travel to Moldova to visit Zakir in prison.
“God is ready to accept us despite all our sins,” says Zakir. “With all we’ve done up to now, He’s given us salvation and forgiven us.”
The church service ends with Girleanu’s closing prayer, and the prisoners prepare to return to their cells. For them the Sabbath service is over, but they wish to give one last message to their fellow Adventists around the world. “Please pray for our small group,” says Zakir. “It is just beginning its way to Christ.”
Thank you for your support of Adventist mission around the world. To learn more about mission and the role you can play in telling the world about Jesus, please visitwww.AdventistMission.org.
Daniel Weber is a video producer for the Office of Adventist Mission.