by John Derks

John serves ex-offenders through the Second Chance Rehabilitation Centre ministry in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

How many times have you been given a second chance? We would yearn for such an opportunity, yet we are often wary of giving others one – especially if the person has committed theft or murder. How likely is it then, that we would give an ex-convict a second chance?

In 1983, my wife of 17 years, Sheila, had filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty and shortly afterwards I was convicted of train robbery. That dreadful day, as I stood before the judge, I could barely lift my face out of shame and fear of seeing the distress on my aged mother’s face. I was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. I heard cries from my family as the handcuffs bit into my wrists and officers led me away.

Broken

At Khami Maximum Prison we were marched down a narrow corridor. The heavy steel doors opened and then banged shut. I found myself in a small, dark cell covered in the scribbles of former inmates. On the floor was a thin mat with filthy grey blankets and a bed pan. This was to be my new home. Under such conditions, sleep was rare and the daily routine was often interrupted by screams. My emotions were beyond anything I had ever felt and I sometimes wanted to end it all. Did I deserve this torment for stealing?

One morning, two guards took me to a pleasant-looking young man who instructed the guards to remove my restraints. For the first time since coming to this place, I felt like a human being and not an animal. On his desk lay a newspaper with the headline, ‘National Railways of Zimbabwe Train Saboteur Jailed’, and I was pictured in handcuffs and leg irons. This man said, ‘15 years in prison can almost be an eternity, depending on how you use that time…I feel led to assist you in ensuring that your time is not wasted here…I propose to transfer you to Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare because it has education facilities and other programmes that may help you.’

I entered Chikurubi a broken and dejected man. Here we spent most of our time locked down, except for a 30-minute break every second day in an open courtyard for exercise. The only form of entertainment was playing cards made out of cigarette packs. The 29 prisoners in our cell related their stories, some of which were gruesome. The offender often showed no remorse, the victims did not seem to matter.

Every three months, the regional magistrate visited to hear grievances. One prisoner requested reading materials and the magistrate agreed. I got an old battered Gideons Bible, with not more than 60 pages. Although disgruntled by its condition, I casually began to read those few soiled pages.

A New Dawn

Then came the day. The sun was streaming through the thick prison bars and the inmates were unusually quiet. The words of Jeremiah 29:11 struck me: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”’ Had the Lord actually spoken to me? I suddenly found myself on my knees, weeping. When I finally got up, I felt an indescribable peace. Never in my life had I experienced anything like it. This was certainly an encounter with the Almighty!

In the days after, I did nothing but feed on the Word. An inmate, who noticed my interest, happened to have an almost complete Bible and was happy for me to use it. Those sacred passages revealed that God is real and, in His loving kindness, He poured His marvellous grace on me. My life took on new meaning as the Saviour began to reveal Himself to me. He had covered my sins with His blood. I was facing the consequences of my crime, but I was forgiven. I was now a new creation in Christ. I was not prepared for what was to follow.

One day, the Lord asked me to take a look around the cell at the other inmates. I saw a sea of sad, hopeless faces. He said, ‘Tell them what I have done for you.’ I turned to the young man on the bottom bunk, Arthur, a 19-year-old ex-cop who had used his service pistol in a robbery. I told him what had happened and he replied, ‘I thought I had noticed some change in you.’ Arthur shared how he had been brought up in a Christian home and he recommitted his life to the Lord. Peter, an undercover agent serving life imprisonment for passing secrets to the enemy, was also saved. Before long, we were holding a service each evening in the cell. God’s Spirit had filled Cell 6b and soon the block was filled with songs of praise.

I suddenly found myself on my knees, weeping. When I finally got up, I felt an indescribable peace.

One morning a note came from another cell block, pleading that I ask the authorities to allow them to join us. Recent riots had resulted in inmates being killed, so gatherings were not permitted. I was granted permission to see the officer in charge. I left the others praying and asked if we could hold a Sunday church in the open hall. In a rage, he shouted, ‘You bandits steal, rob, rape and kill outside and come here and ask to have church!’ Flabbergasted, I pleaded, ‘Sir, don’t you realise that incarceration on its own will never change the hearts of the inmates, only God can do that?’ He shouted, ‘Don’t you dare preach to me, bandit. Get out!’ As I scampered away, he barked, ‘Get back here!’ In a more gentle voice, he said, ‘Okay, I will grant your request but if there is any trouble during your meetings, you will be held responsible!’ The next Sunday, 200 inmates gathered in the hall with extra guards to ensure order. However, there was no need, the Lord was in charge and there was tranquillity among the inmates; the officers were amazed and joined in the singing. We were free men within a prison!

Seven years later, on 2 February 1992, I was released on a Presidential Amnesty and was reconciled to my wife. I had just begun to see the Lord’s mighty hand upon my life.

Gideons & Petra

Gideons International representatives, Tom Meyer (USA) and Danny Chipps, heard of my conversion. As a result, I got a job as a groundsman at an elite Christian school, Petra. Under Malcolm Davidson’s mentorship, I rose to the position of estate manager. I joined the Gideons and was put in charge of the prison Bible distribution. Seeing the many inmates who re-offended concerned me and, in August 2008, I answered God’s call to work full time in providing care for ex-offenders.

Second Chance Ministries

I had left my job, but my wife was supportive of me and I was at peace. ‘He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it’ (1 Thess. 5:24) and I hung on to that promise. A board of trustees was established for Second Chance Rehabilitation Ministries, which began in a caravan in my backyard. A lawyer joined the board, registered the trust and arranged for an office at their law firm. The prison authorities agreed to refer men and women being released to the programme. In 2012, we were offered more space at the Theological College of Zimbabwe, with a workshop to train ex-offenders in carpentry, metal fabrication and sewing. As support grew, we were able to expand and enrol an average of 18 ex-offenders. A donation of industrial sewing machines turned into our principal income-generating project, with skills training that enables former prisoners to sustain themselves.

Six Steps to Freedom

Critical to the project are counselling and spiritual development. The trainees need to understand that forgiveness and acceptance by the society entails taking responsibility for their crimes with confession to their Creator, the victims and the community. We call this process the Six Steps to Freedom: Confession, Restitution, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Healing and Freedom. Each day, we witness God’s amazing grace in changed lives. He breaks that vicious cycle of re-offending and makes us new creations in Him.

Saved by His Word

In that old battered Bible, the seed lay dormant, waiting to come into contact with the parched soil of my heart and give new life. I am thankful for God’s divine mercy on a sinner like me and those He placed in my life; most of all, for my late wife, Sheila, who forgave and stood with me. Above all, I praise and give thanks to the Lord who saved my soul. Truly the Word of God is alive and active.

Pray for the 2nd Chance Rehabilitation Centre, the Gideons and the Emmaus team, and for the prisoners to find freedom in Christ.