Troubled youth reap benefits from prison Bible studies

Written by Rachel Bergen, Manitoba Correspondent, courtesy of ChristianWeek

At Manitoba Youth Centre, a young offenders prison in Winnipeg, certain inmates are able to attend the chapel. High profile gang members, however, are not allowed. Up until seven months ago, these youth’s needs for spiritual care were not met. Then Inner City Youth Alive (ICYA) stepped in.

In an effort to attend to the spiritual needs of those who make up the MYC gang unit, three people from ICYA including Harvey Rempel, Andrew Reimer and James Driedger, along with Jordan Penner from Union Gospel Mission, established weekly Bible studies.

Rempel, Reimer, Driedger and Penner get together with five to 15 young men every Thursday to explore biblical and theological themes that are relevant to their lives.

Rempel, a Community Minister at ICYA, says those who participate in the Bible study explore themes such as fear, how it can control and trap people in their lives; peace and how it would look if peace ruled in people’s lives and in their neighbourhoods, and identity, how what people have done in the past does not dictate who they are, among other things.

“Our goal is to, as much as possible, communicate the good news in a way that is relevant to their lives and to situations in their family and their neighbourhood,” he says.

These themes are important for the inmates to understand, says Rempel, because too many times, there has been “a chorus of voices condemning them.”

The leaders of the Bible study “walk alongside the (inmates) to discover that God is actually for them and on their side, not just condemning or accusing them, but wanting to bring healing, restoration and the possibility of a new life,” says Rempel.

“Too often we focus on the one kid that beats the odds and we put them on a pedestal.”

Though the leaders of the Bible study often find it difficult to follow up on the spiritual life of inmates because they are sometimes moved to a different facility, released or inconsistent in their attendance, some inmates have opened up, shared struggles, asked for prayer, asked for Bibles and started reading them. Some have even asked for one-on-one visits from the Bible study leaders.

Many have expressed the desire to get out of the gang lifestyle.

Some former convicts, who have been released since the Bible studies began, have approached Rempel and his colleagues to discuss life, post-incarceration.

Rempel says it is important to reach out to these incarcerated youth because, “Too often we focus on the one kid that beats the odds and we put them on a pedestal, or we just write them off as gangsters and thugs, locking them up and throwing away the key.”

The leaders of the Bible study try to help those who attend to understand that there is a new way of life outside of the gang life, and that their former life does not define them.

“We, [the leaders of the Bible study,] feel honoured to be able to build relationships with these guys… It’s one of the highlights of our week,” says Rempel.

Manitoba Youth Centre is the largest youth correctional centre in Manitoba and houses approximately 157 young males and females that have been charged as young offenders.