Hidden Heroes

I’ve just returned from a conference in Toronto which gathered 900 representatives from 130 countries. They are among the most compassionate and dedicated people I have met, yet few people know about them because they operate out of the limelight, behind bars. They work or volunteer for Prison Fellowship International, an organization headed by an unassuming Canadian named Ron Nikkel.

My friendship with Ron goes back more than thirty years, when he headed an organization called Youth Guidance that worked with juvenile delinquents (euphemistically called “non-school-oriented youth,” as if there exists a category of school-oriented youth). As a journalist I accompanied Ron on what turned out to be one of my most fascinating assignments. Chuck Colson’s new organization Prison Fellowship had handpicked two dozen federal prisoners and Ron had selected an equal number of non-school-oriented delinquents to undergo a rigorous Outward Bound-type program in northern Wisconsin.

For the kids, the program achieved its goals spectacularly. Street-wise hooligans learned to cooperate with teammates to master orienteering in the wilderness, for any mistake brought down the wrath of the whole group.  “I know some of you will want to run away,” said the leader as the two-week course began.  “Just remember, the woods are full of bears and wolves, so you likely won’t last long.”  I’ll never forget one bully, seething with anger, who kicked every tree he passed on the first day’s hike.  When it came his turn to rappel off a cliff he got a bad case of sewing-machine leg and blubbered like a baby.  Yet at the end, when he completed a half-marathon run through the forest, you would have thought he’d won the Olympics. He had learned a new set of skills and the maturity to look inside himself for strength, rather than exploiting the weakness of others.

The federal prisoners, however, had a very different experience. Anticipating a retreat away from prison, with lazy days of lounging by a lake and fishing, they encountered instead a boot camp of pre-dawn marches and physical ordeals. The leaders of the adventure program knew every motivational trick in the book, but if a man who stands six-foot-eight and weighs three hundred pounds doesn’t want to edge backwards off a cliff, even if he’s fastened securely to ropes, nothing in a leader’s manual can make him do it—especially if the balker is a convicted murderer.  The prescribed course ends with a three-day “solo” in which each participant finds a spot in the wilderness and spends the time alone with a Bible and notebook. Organizers had not factored in that solitary confinement represents the worst kind of punishment for a prisoner. For the juveniles, everything worked as planned; for the prisoners, nothing worked as planned.

Ron Nikkel moved from working with youth to working with adult prisoners in 1982, joining a loose association of six countries with prison ministries. Under his leadership Prison Fellowship International has spread to 124 countries, making it the largest such organization in the field of criminal justice. Several times over the years I have accompanied Ron on trips overseas.  We visited prisons in Chile at the height of General Pinochet’s oppression. We visited a medieval dungeon still housing prisoners outside Moscow just as the Iron Curtain fell—the only prison under Soviet communism which had a dedicated chapel, built by the prisoners.  Even now, when I go to a new country in Africa or Asia, often I’ll ask Ron for contacts and meet the Prison Fellowship staff.

Thanks to its founder Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship has a high profile in the United States. Overseas, programs may deliberately keep a low profile, for oppressive governments don’t like outsiders messing with their prisoners. Working under the radar, PFI has devised a remarkable series of creative approaches.  Some African nations do not supply food for their prisoners, requiring the prisoners’ families to care for them instead.  In a shame-based culture, though, families may shun their convict relative, and so PFI runs bakeries and soup kitchens to supply food. In women’s prisons, young children often go behind bars with their mothers, and PFI volunteers provide schooling and day-care for these children. PFI runs educational programs for prisoners and brings in teams of doctors and dentists to provide medical care. In Brazil, PFI has taken complete control of six prisons at the government’s request. Other PFI chapters focus on aftercare, even building factories to provide jobs for ex-offenders.

Ron Nikkel has probably visited more prisons in more countries than anyone in history, observing firsthand conditions that sometimes rival those of Nazi concentration camps. He has headed a United Nations task force on criminal justice.  He likes to quote Winston Churchill, who said you can judge a civilization by how it treats its prisoners. By that measure, he says with a sad shake of the head, we all fail. Scandinavian countries probably show the most humane treatment, but no one has an answer for crime and nearly every society faces a discouraging recidivism rate of 70 percent. For this reason PFI is allowed to operate even in tightly controlled Muslim countries: No one else can help, so why not give the Christians a chance.

Publications from PFI feature stories of reconciliation between victim and offender, including PFI’s leading role in restorative justice after the Rwandan massacres.  Ron does what he does because—despite (or due to) his criminal justice background—he sees no solution to crime other than transformed lives. For this reason, all the good work done by prison volunteers comes in the name of Christ, the one who offers transformation. PFI works across all denominational lines, bringing together charismatics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox, and Catholics.

Why do they do it, these volunteers?  Most with whom I talked in Toronto insist they do it because Jesus commanded it.  Announcing his mission, he included the goal to “liberate the captives,” and he said in Matthew 25 that God will judge the nations on how we cared for “the least of these,” including prisoners.

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky credited his conversion to a woman who thrust a New Testament in his hands as he traveled by train to Siberia.  She, a volunteer not unlike those I met in Toronto, showed compassion to one man whom society was sending into exile, and because of her kindness one of the greatest novelists met a life-transforming power.

Although the work of Prison Fellowship International may take place out of the limelight, its impact is incalculable. In many countries today’s prisoners comprise tomorrow’s leaders; for example, after South Africa’s change from white rule a majority of the new cabinet had a prison record, as did their leader Nelson Mandela. Nearly every liberation movement starts with prisoners (think Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma).  And, looking through history, imagine the Christian faith without prisoners: John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John Bunyan, martyrs in the Roman Empire, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anna Skripnikova, Nelson Mandela, Benigno Aquino, Armando Valladares of Cuba.  In Toronto I saw that a movement begun in chains and behind bars has not forgotten its heritage.

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15 Responses to Hidden Heroes

  1. Carol Hall says:

    Dear Mr. Yancy, I read with such awe and (to be truthful) delight, your comment in your Bio that you had been ‘searching for a faith that makes the followers larger, not smaller” …and took courage to write the following:
    I’ve walked with Jesus for several decades in both pulpit and pew, and want to raise a painful question unspoken by many…”If I am so valuable and important to God how can I be so insignificant to the ‘church”? Do we propagate two divergent ideas to the faithful, creating absolute confusion for them (us)? Is our only importance here statistical? Are we courted for gifts and potentials that will enhance and advance the local objectives? Will we only be the ‘flavor of the month’ until a greater possibility eclipses what we have to offer?
    I know this sounds cynical – but cynical is where I have come from and I raise the above on behalf of all those who sadly accept that they’re ‘not important’ based on shallow and superficial ‘christian’ behaviors that have nothing to do with Jesus, and all to do with the ‘We Are The Favored Few’ dogma of the world.
    What a gift you have – and what dedication to pursue it for our sakes…thank you.

    Very good questions, Carol. It seems to me that one of the challenges of ministry is to convey that sense of importance and significance to the “ordinary people” in the pew, to convince us that no one is ordinary. In the process, ministry becomes a kind of sacrifice for the sake of others, and often in a boomerang effect it’s the minister who feels unimportant and insignificant. Keep raising those questions; keep providing answers with your life.

  2. Ryan says:

    If you have read ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace’, I recommend another tome entitled
    ‘When a Nation Forgets God’ by Erwin W. Lutzer. It’s 140 pages of some of the best time you could ever spend.

  3. Kim says:

    In reply to Hoss, I just wonder, how many of Yancey’s books have you read? Would you call him unreflective of Christ’s Love, would you call him turning the grace of God into lasciviousness? Or would you say, in a world of ungrace where so many like yourself judge another without walking in their moccasin, there is one like Yancey, who is bold enough to speak his mind and to show God’s love in a way he knows how, not trying to judge another but just spreading the message of hope, love, joy and peace. Remember Christ came for the sinners and not for the pharisaical ones……which are you?

    An Avid Yancey Fan,

  4. Hi mr. Yancey!

    What a beautiful post this one!

    It is really amazing! Here in Brazil I know some works like that, and for sure I would like to be in this Conference!


    Dani Nogueira

  5. Mary Dueitt says:

    I have recently become an avid reader of your books, having read What’s So Amazing About Grace (4 times in succession), The Jesus I Never Knew and presently, Where is God When It Hurts. Because of the subject matter in Grace, it is more uplifting than Where is God… . It reminds me of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled versus People of the Lie. Have you published a book dealing with parental grief in the death of a child? My youngest son was killed in an automobile accident four years ago and I know that as long as I live, nothing worse can happen to me. It is like living with a gaping hole or sore that never scabs over. I realize it would be difficult for you to write on this subject without having experienced it because only another parent can understand how I feel, but with your depth of feeling, it is certainly possible. If you haven’t done so, will you please give consideration to it? Thank you for allowing me to comment.

    Interesting comparison on the themes of Scott Peck’s books–I see what you mean. Two other books I’ve written that touch on such issues are “Disappointment with God” and the more recent “What Good Is God?” Like you, I believe such books as you describe should be written by those who have gone through the experience. I would recommend Gerald Sittser’s “Grace Disguised”; a teacher at Whitworth College, he lost three generations of family members in an accident. I believe, with you, that losing a child is the worst pain on earth. Bless you for writing, and I will take your suggestion very seriously.

  6. Kim says:

    I would just like to address two words to Mr. Andrew Cattell’s words ……”Baseless and preposterous!!!” In my mind nobody reflects Christ in his writing more than Mr. Philip Yancey does in these current times…..enough said I think.

    Just me,
    An Avid Yancey Fan (Kim)

  7. Adam Forrest says:

    Mr. Yancey, thank you for sharing the stories of Mr. Nikkel and the PFI volunteers. Your accounts of their ministry inspired me to write a piece on Zondervan Blog (http://zndr.vn/qnX3wJ). I was especially intrigued by your observation about all the prisoners that appear in the story of the gospel. I’m still thinking about this – it seems significant. Thanks for sharing,
    Adam (For the sake of full disclosure, I’m a Zondervan Employee)

    I like your blog–and am glad I had a part in bringing up this new area of interest for you.


  8. jim filer says:

    I think I own about every book you have ever written, having first discovered you via “The Jesus I Never Knew”. Christ came into my life 39 years ago, me void of any and all prior knowledge of what being “saved” meant, a small old-time “holiness” church my introduction to Him, and the journey therein convincing me along the way that the ecclesiastical instituion, as a whole, is “God’s obstacle course; survive twenty years and you’re ready for Heaven!” Regardless of how that might sound, I am glad for the experience, thankful for three daughters who, with their families, are now very faithful to Christ and active within the church. You, sir, have been instrumental to me as a source of sanity, an oasis (along with the Holy Ghost) to which I have returned again and again. The last decade, ministering at a local Youth Detention Center and a nearby rescue mission has fed my soul. Approaching 70 in October and technology not my best skill. It’s great to have finally located a place to experience more of your balanced theology!

    Folks like you on the front lines are the real heroes. You’ve been faithful in so many ways, and I’m honored to hear that my writings have helped a bit along the way.

  9. Mark Fitzgerald says:

    Hey Phillip,
    thanks to your recommendation I just finished my first book by Shusaku Endo (Scandal) which I enjoyed though I found his writing style a little dry. Do you know if it was autobiographical? I also read The Idiot, Resurrection and Anna Karenina, the last now being my favourite book. The scope of my reading has increased greatly since I read Soul Survivor. Thankyou.

    I don’t know the answer to your question about Scandal. If you Google Shusaku Endo, though, you’ll find much biographical material. And congratulations for tackling the Russians! They’re so much better than anything being produced today. It gives me great pleasure to hear that readers go from my books to the original sources.

  10. Rachel says:

    Hi Mr. Yancey.

    I don’t know if you remember, but I wrote to you a while ago with a story attatchment, and you replied back saying that the attatchment had not opened, but that I could try again with a new address. (I believe it was your assistant’s address.) I tried again, but since then, there has not been a reply. If you didn’t mean to reply back and don’t mean to reply back, I do understand completely, you are still one of my favorite authors, and I’m sorry for taking up more time. But in the case that you did/do mean to reply, I wanted to let you know that I tried again today to send the attatchment to that address in the hope that you could honor me with your thoughts on it. Either way, thank you very much.

  11. Sandy says:

    ‘I mention this story because the emotions I felt when my mother showed me the crumpled photo were the very same emotions I felt one February night in a college dorm room when I first believed in a God of love. Someone is there, I realized. Someone is watching life as it unfolds on this planet. More, Someone is there who loves me. It was a startling feeling of wild hope, a feeling so new and overwhelming that it seemed fully worth risking my life on.’ (Disappointment With God)

    ‘Deprived of my own father in infancy, I received as an adult from Brand much that I missed. As much as anyone, he has helped set my course in outlook, spirit and ideals. I look at the natural world, and environmental issues, largely through his eyes. From him I also have gained assurance that the Christian life I had heard in theory can actually work in practice.’ (Pg. 64, Soul Survivor)

    Mr. Yancey, I want to thank you that your honesty in writings makes me realize and keep learning that I can’t save myself and I need His grace. I wrote those two paragraphs in case you wander from your faith.

    “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” – John 14:2 NIV

    I’m not wandering right now, but I do find that my faith needs regular booster shots. Thank you for this one!

  12. For about four years I led a monthly service at our local ‘Young Offender Centre’. It never failed to amaze me how appreciative some of the kids were that we bothered to come and spend time with them. Pretty well every month at least five or six kids came up to us afterwards to shake our hands and thank us for taking the time to come in and be with them.

  13. KarenWelden says:

    I am grateful for every one of your books. You and C.S.Lewis have been my most influential authors. Thank you,too, for posting here so we addicts have something of yours to read between books.

  14. Royce Pope says:

    New to your writings. I just read “The Jesus I Never Knew”.. liked your style and your insight so I went our and bought 6 more of your books. I’m confident I will enjoy them just as much. My problem is I want to read them all at once. I thank God for his gift to those who can put on paper their research and experiences in a way we reap the benifit of their hard labor. Thank You doesn’t quite say enough, but somehow THANK YOU is all I can say. I don’t think the Holy Spirit quit inspiring writings with the disciples. You certainly are on a list that includes our friend C.S. Lewis. Again THANKS.

    You’re very kind. As for reading all at once, I’d say take your time. After all, it takes me more than a year to write a book!

  15. it’s the kind of stuff that gives you goosebumps – that someone has decided to not forget about prisoners, someone has decided to not write them off as either too far gone or not worth ministering to. Beautiful story, thanks Philip.

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