Pastor Patrice Rolin’s interest in making the Bible available to prisoners dates back to the very start of his ministry, in the mid-1980s.
“In my first parish, where I was pastor from 1984 to 1992, a maison d’arrêt (a unit holding people awaiting trial or sentencing) opened in 1991,” he says. “And in the presbytery where I lived with my family, there were three rehabilitation apartments for people leaving prison. There were plenty of lads to take care of my children! There was one who stole a few things from me, but he gave them all back later, so everything was fine!”
A prison built where beet once grew
Patrice and some others set up an organisation to help prisoners’ families. “This was in Villepinte, in Seine-Saint-Denis, in a prison which was built where beet once grew. There was nothing there.”
At the maison d’arrêt, Spanish-speaking and Catholic South Americans asked for mass to be held. By happy coincidence, the Catholic chaplain spoke Spanish. And then there were English-speaking Africans from Protestant backgrounds who wanted Bible study sessions. Since Patrice speaks English, he led regular Bible studies in English for seven years.
A life-shaping experience
“I was taking a Master of Advanced Studies course in New Testament studies, focusing on the book of Mark. I had intended to study Mark with them, but they had other ideas. They called each other by the number of grams of drugs that they had on them when they were arrested in Charles de Gaulle’s airport. If you were called ‘100g’, that wasn’t very much. But they had a lot of respect for ‘3kg’. And probably it was ‘3kg’ who said, ‘No, we want to study Revelation’.
“Revelation! In English, and some of them couldn’t read! I tried not to agree, but it was no good. They wanted to work on Revelation. Finally I said, ‘Choosing what to study is the only choice they have!’ So we studied Revelation.”
In tune with Revelation
And Patrice was amazed by how well they understood this book. Everything was so uncertain for these prisoners who had been arrested as they left the aeroplane, who had never known anything except their African village and this prison. This put them in tune with Revelation and its words for a community living in a collapsing world.
“It was clear to them that these words are intended to help people to remain strong when the world is collapsing, and to give them hope,” he says. “The precariousness of their lives, so similar to the precariousness facing the author of Revelation and his audience, meant that they didn’t need the whole cultural background that you sometimes have to supply – the Roman Empire, the Jewish apocalyptic and so on – for people who live free, stable lives.”
Thirst for reading
Patrice sees Bible study as a vital aspect of ministering to prisoners, but it is also just as important to help prisoners in their personal Bible reading, recognising that they are often thirsting spiritually and, more generally, have a thirst for reading.
The French Bible Society currently supports chaplains by supplying them Bibles to distribute to prisoners. Its interactions with chaplains and with people who, like Patrice, have been involved in or are currently involved in prison ministry has made it aware of the need to do more.
Releasing hope and understanding God’s Word
“We’re in the process of devising a new project called ‘The Bible in Prison: Releasing Hope and Understanding God’s Word’,” says Jeanne-Marie de Lépine, head of fundraising at the Bible Society.” One element is to build on the existing partnership with chaplains by offering them Parole de Vie Bibles (which use readily accessible language) and Bibles in other languages, to distribute to prisoners who request them. Providing a Bible has the potential to bring hope to a prisoner.
“A second element is our plan to establish, from the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, a new partnership in line with our role as a developer of Bible-based products. We will work with prison chaplain representatives to produce a Bible discovery brochure and a Bible reading guide. These will be offered to prisoners to help them to understand God’s Word.”
The Bible Society hopes that these products will meet prisoners’ need for support and for assistance in understanding the Bible. Even if no chaplain is available, each prisoner who benefits from the project will be able to look for answers to his existential questions or find a comforting Bible passage.
‘The book reads your life’
“When you read the Bible, the book reads your life,” emphasises Patrice. “It is full of themes which relate to the human experience. This is a great way to begin tackling the texts, both for prisoners and non-prisoners. What is my position? Where am I in history? Where am I in my life? This helps prisoners to see that the book, the Bible, is talking about you, not just in superficial terms but as a genuine testimony.”
So it is vital to choose themes that really relate to the key existential questions. Which themes should be addressed in a Bible discovery guide aimed at prisoners?
At the beginning of June 2012, during workshops that he led for the International Prison Chaplains Association, Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan, explained that he had never met a prisoner who had experienced loving or kind paternal authority.
“They all tell of inadequate fathers, whether abusive, excessively involved or absent. It’s the same story, regardless of the social background,” says Patrice. “I think that, if you’re choosing texts for prisoners, it’s vital to include themes relating to rebuilding positive fathering, or indeed mothering.”
Forgiveness and freedom
Richard Rohr also addressed the issue of forgiveness, taking account of the individual’s own story. He spoke about freedom, too, and of “finding within you a space for freedom and contemplation”. How can psychological freedom be achieved inside prison walls?
“Naomi Buick, a chaplain in a maison d’arrêt for women, asked me to supply materials about women in the Bible,” says Patrice. “A theme like this could be relevant for male prisoners, too, as, in many cases, there is a need to rebuild their image of women.
“In any case, it’s important to prioritise Bible texts which deal with life’s journey, like Jonah descending to the depths of the sea inside a whale. These are the texts with which it’s easiest to identify.”
This work has only just begun. No doubt the team of chaplains currently being assembled to prepare these biblical materials will contribute many other ideas, too.
Work without borders
“We often see reports in the media about prison conditions, and prisoners’ lives are often the subject of fictional films, but we know little about the very difficult, very personal journey that each prisoner makes when he has to face his crime,” says Jeanne-Marie de Lépine. “Only chaplains, who go to the cells and hear the prisoners’ confidences, can tell us about their state of mind.
“The projects the Bible Society undertakes in prison are a way of serving, on a long-term basis and in interconfessional partnership with the Churches, the people forgotten by the world. And by helping chaplains and prisoners, we are joining in the untiring work undertaken by our colleagues from other Bible Societies in countries as different as Ukraine, Australia and Haiti, to meet this need. It is possible that some of them may in time translate and adapt the materials we are preparing so that they can use them in their own country.”