No more bars
Leo De Weerdt SJ (BSE)
Fourteen years ago, I took as a Jesuit my first steps into the prison, and I entered in the history of the lives of those who live there. I had not realized how delicate the situation was until I found myself for the first time at the door of the prison in Bruges, neither did I understand then how rich an experience it would be. With one of our pastoral activities in prison 'No more bars' we are nominated for an official award from the Dutch organisation Huub Oosterhuis Fonds in Amsterdam."
Male and female Christians from parishes of the diocese of Bruges (Belgium) on the one hand and detainees from west-Flemish prisons on the other who are willing to become fellow travellers and maybe one day even friends.
Does this look like Utopia? How can a heartfelt encounter ever take place between a righteous christian and somebody who is imprisoned because of punishable facts. Isn't the water to deep to establish a meaningful meeting between these two worlds...
Origin of the Project
In 2001, the prison chaplaincy started in collaboration with the diocese, as an experiment the Project 'No more bars' in the penitentiary complex of Bruges. The aim is that Christians from the parishes enter into conversation about a variety of human issues like parent and partner, guilt, anxiety, responsibility, respect, freedom... The supervision, responsibility and the specific implementation of the Project are in the hands of a steering committee in consultation with the prison chaplains.
The basic assumption of the Project is that the community of Christ doesn't stop at the walls of the prison.
The project intends to focus on the solidarity between the Christian community extra muros and those intra muros. The Christian can become a bridge-builder through which prison and society become closer related to each other and the gap between both may becomes smaller.
Furthermore the Project can create a space in which the volunteers extra muros and the detainees work on issues like the significance and the quality of life in a christian perspective. In the conversations, we dwell on existential topics that deeply challenge our lives.
Moreover, we want to be close to the aggrieved person. To look after and to take care of an in our society marginalized section, becomes very concrete in our Project.
We strongly believe that we as an ecclesial community - focused on the life in prison - are able to better grasp the heart of the gospel and our mission as a Christian.
Method of working
A number of volunteers (5) extra muros and a number of detainees (5-7) make up one discussion group under the supervision of a facilitator and in the presence of a prison chaplain. The volunteers as well as the detainees meet each other first and foremost as 'fellow human beings'. The equivalence among people is the guiding principle of our meetings.
Each discussion group comprises a cycle of six gatherings of two hours each. They take place weekly or every two weeks in a separate room in the prison beyond the reach of the security guards. Each time deep seated human issues are tackled that bridge the gap between outside and inside and concern both detainees and volunteers. These issues are perceived differently depending on the context within people live. Each discussion topic is illustrated by specific material as pictures, songs, texts, pieces of art, etc.
The Significance of the Project: for the detainees
The detainees who take part in the discussion groups are surprised to encounter in the volunteers the non-repressive face of our society. To many detainees it is a revelation that there are people extra muros that are willing to listen to them, to talk with them and to encourage them. They are surprised not to be condemned.
Detainees often talk about things they cannot otherwise speak about with people apart from the prison chaplain. They have learned to see the volunteers as people who aren't there to represent a system or a profession. Detainees and volunteers face each other first and foremost as human beings.
The discussion group is perceived as a 'sanctuary' where one can be one's very self. Emotions as pain, sadness, anger, resentment can be shared without having to pretend and without fear of misuse of information.
For the volunteers
An opportunity is offered to the volunteers to get to know a so far unknown world against which there are many prejudices. They moreover get the opportunity to have a nuanced look at people living in a prison. The volunteers quickly meet the human being behind the perpetrator.
During the meetings the volunteers experience that the lives of the detainees are often very complex and that you cannot lightly talk about it. Many become aware that they probably wouldn't have done better had they had to live through the same kind of life. For them it is obvious that society doesn't merely consist of 'good' and 'bad' people.
The volunteers offer the ecclesial community a 'prophetic' asset. Wherever they live and work they can become authentic witnesses against the common conceptions of the life of prisoners.
Tralies uit de weg (No more bars):