Grace is a catalyst that transforms people. Volunteers at Prison Fellowship International’s numerous national ministries around the world extend grace when they recognize the dignity, indeed God’s image, in people who’ve committed the greatest wrongs. Most others, including many Christians, avoid or judge these incarcerated individuals.
Prison Fellowship Peru (PFP) volunteer Leonie Bernales shares about a time she extended grace to a woman incarcerated for participating in a child pornography ring, and the transformative impact it had.
“In my work as a volunteer with PFP, I used to teach English to a group of women prisoners. ‘One day, a fellow volunteer asked me: How can you be friends with Maria*? She was part of a child pornography ring.’ I was speechless, and could not think about anything else that night.
However, I remembered that Chuck Colson [Prison Fellowship International founder] had told us that we should “hate the sin, not the sinner,” so I kept trying to be as nice as possible to her. I realized that she was struggling with feelings of guilt and was very depressed. She asked me for psychological assistance, so I referred her to a psychologist friend who was also a volunteer in her prison.
I noticed later that Maria was a little better, less depressed and more communicative. Several months afterwards when I was waiting with her, she suddenly put her head on my shoulder and began narrating her story. It turns out that at the age of 10, Maria had been raped by her sister’s husband, in whose home she lived. Nobody had believed her when she accused him. Maria said, ‘I have realized now that I became as bad as he was.’
Not long afterwards, she told me that she forgave her brother-in-law. Maria worried about her only son who now lived now with her sister and brother-in-law. Previously, she would hang up if the man who hurt her answered the phone when she called to check on her son.
Only after she forgave him unilaterally did she have the courage to speak to him on the phone and told him she had forgiven him. The man started crying so hard that he could not speak. Finally, he asked her to pardon him and promised to take care of her son as if he were his own child.
Maria became a new person. She never missed a meeting in the prison chapel, was always ready to help others and began taking part in all the activities we (PFP) organized. She played Mary Magdalene in the next performance of Christ’s Passion in prison and helped prepare all the decorations and costumes.
This was grace in action transforming a person through love and forgiveness!”
*Name changed to protect identity.
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