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Alpha @Tainan Prison, Taiwan

posted 18.08.2012

(lead photo: Ivan Lim is seated 4th from right)

This year, I led a Singapore delegation with our St. James' brother Joseph and three more brothers from The New Charis Mission. We joined other volunteers from Hong Kong and Taiwan on this joint mission trip co-organised with Prison Fellowship Taiwan. The trip ran from 13-25 July 2012 and was divided into two legs of ministry activities.

The first leg was a highly compressed run of a single-day Global Alpha Training at the Taipei Truth Lutheran Church, followed closely after by a 5-day 12-lesson Alpha Course days in Tainan Prison.

The prison we ministered in Tainan bore the name of "First Village under Heaven". Built upon a hill, the complex is bordered by a vast expanse of greenery. The activity centers and living quarters are low-rise buildings with equally low ceilings. This trip took place at the height of summer. So, with an outdoor temperature ranging between 35-38 degrees celsius and the noticeable lack of air-conditioning within the premises, we were literally aflame for God!

The fire in our spirit was greatly needed for running a full Alpha course in 5 days within such challenging conditions. We would run 3 topical lessons in two sessions everyday at 8am and 1pm. Prior to starting each session, the full ministry team gathered early to rehearse the praise & worship songs, to pray over each other and for each prison participant.

We would then gather in two rows at the entrance to await the arrival of the participants. As they approach, we broke into a rousing welcome song to soften and condition their steely hearts. Once they were seated, we led them in energetic praise & worship of our Lord accompanied with full dance steps and actions. It was through our intentional demonstration of freedom in worship that these hardened jailbirds began to lower their tough-guy defensiveness over the next few days. By the third day, almost every participant was raising his hands in complete abandon to worship our Lord!

After praise & worship, the Alpha topic video by Ps. Nicky Gumbel was screened. We joked aside about the seeming remarkable ability of the speaker within the video to sense the audience's ethnicity and thus switched his spoken language to Mandarin in real-time!

The Small Group Experience: They opened up

The post-video discussion was conducted within 6 separate discussion groups. I had earlier learnt that a participant assigned to my group was famous in prison for speaking no more than three sentences a day. However, from the very first discussion till the end of the course, he turned out to be the greatest contributor! For every 50 minutes of discussion, he would be speaking for 30 min! We thank the Lord for His guiding wisdom in framing our questions so that the participants were not spoon-fed with answers but were motivated to develop resolutions to each others' dilemmas in life.

When our time for discussion ended, we would break for 10 minutes and enter into free-flow fellowship. How precious were those short 10 minutes being the only opportunity to develop a one-to-one personal relationship with the participants.

I decided to get to know the silent-turned-chatty one and consequently uncovered his heart wrenching life story. He had lost both parents at a very tender young age. He learnt the brutal ways of staying alive in the merciless streets of his hometown and killed a man when he was only 10 years old. Since then he had been released from and committed back into prison life countless times. He picked up extremely aggressive behaviors to survive the constant violence within the prison subculture and soon was fully immersed in hard core criminality and the drug trade.

Thanks be to God because when our volunteers were confronted with similar life stories of such cruel desperation and bondage, we were able to respond with the message of complete victorious hope in our Christ Jesus! Every volunteer in the team, from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, was once trapped in similar bondages of drugs, crime and incarceration! It was to this end that the goodness of our Lord worked so faithfully in our own lives so we may bring hope, cheer and love to these participants languishing in their own blind despair.

Every volunteer had ample opportunity to share their true life testimony of salvation by Jesus from the cycle of drugs, crime and imprisonment into a new life of blessing, mercy and love. Our united message of the good news to the participating prisoners were: "The Lord Jesus Christ can change you regardless of where you come from!"

The Holy Spirit “Weekend”

The fourth day running the Alpha course proved to be most critical period of all. It is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit Weekend of the conventional course. We had observed the Holy Spirit of God already beginning His work in the hearts of the participants from the very first day. By the fourth day, many of them were hungering for the Holy Spirit to work even more and deeper within their souls. By then, many were raising their hands to praise and worship their new-found Lord with all their heart and all their soul. We believed God had truly softened and opened up the hearts of the respondents!

As the Holy Weekend activity entered into ministry time, the volunteers mingled with the participants, laid hands on them and prayed for the ones who invited Jesus into their lives, the ones who asked for the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit and those who require intercession over their needs. We then summoned the participants who prayed to receive Jesus as their personal Lord to step up onto the stage.

There was one whom we knew did not want to receive Jesus yet, but nevertheless he came up on stage. When we queried him, he answered directly he was there to receive the "free gift" which we announced was available to anyone who stepped up. We all had a little laugh when we explained that the announced "free gift" was the Lord Jesus Himself and we continued to commit this particular prisoner into the Lord's mercy and timing.

On the last day of the Alpha course, the prison superintendent graced the participants with a speech of encouragement and hope. Each participant was then awarded with a certificate of course attendance. For many, it was a great moment in their lives of discontinued education to receive their very first certificate of completion. They were visibly proud of their course graduation indeed!

In appreciation of the labour of love and grace, the participants presented to the volunteers items of song and drama. The volunteer team was equally happy to stage their own presentation item to thank the participants for their cooperation and gratitude. We took our final group photos before saying our farewell.

During the many goodbyes, handshakes and group hugs, the participants were asked about their experiences during the Holy Spirit segment of the course. Some reported an unusual numb sensation of their tongues, some shared about a feeling of powerful heat from within them, some remarked of heat beating upon their heads and still others talked of heat spreading upwards from the soles of their feet! Praise the Lord for His great and undisputable work of power and grace!

Before we left Tainan, we closed the first leg of our ministry trip by celebrating the birthday of our brother Joseph with a buffet dinner. Since his birthday falls on the very month we embark on our annual mission trips, this celebration looks set to become a tradition!

Sharing at Half-way Houses & coming home

The second leg was a 6-day whirlwind tour of various halfway-houses, drug rehabilitation shelters & Christian prison ministry organisations. We were met personally with a transport pickup by the director of The House of Grace at Pingdong at 7pm. We were introduced to the handicrafts enterprise that provides work therapy to the halfway house residents and the various ministry programs available. Our Singapore volunteers joined two brothers from Hong Kong in giving testimony to God's great mercy and goodness into their lives. Before we left, we conducted a 1-to-1 prayer ministry time.

The next day, we set off bright and early to the Pingdong branch of Operation Dawn. After leading praise & worship and sharing our testimonies, we left in the late evening for the Gaoxiong branch of Operation Dawn. The management and residents invited us to a mealtime fellowship and exchange of testimonies.

After a grueling total of 8-days non-stop ministry, we were finally able to take our first full day of rest & recovery before visiting the headquarters of Operation Dawn the next day to learn more of their operations and to bid our farewell.

On 24 July we dropped by the offices of Prison Fellowship Taiwan early in the morning before proceeding our way to visit the Keelung outpost of Operation Dawn for a short introduction of our mission and the sharing of our testimonials.

The day for us to return home finally arrived. We spent our last day of the mission trip in early morning devotions and praise & worship with the leadership and staff of Prison Fellowship Taiwan. With our last photo taken and the last hand shaken, we bid our kind hosts good bye. It will not be too soon before we return again next year 2013 with more testimonies of God's life-changing power and unending love.