31st October, 2008
It was during his first visit to Australia last year that Willie Dengler - a South African pastor who runs a prison ministry in the troubled nation - was approached by an elderly couple.
Having come to Australia from South Africa, they related how their son, a maths teacher, had been murdered at the college in Johannesburg where he taught. It took three days for the body to be found and a year for the killer to be apprehended.
AUSTRALIAN CONNECTION: Pastor Willie Dengler, (far right) receives a cheque for $388 with Rick George from Bible Society NSW from Martin Parish (left), chaplain at the Kariong Juvenile Correctional Centre, on the NSW Central Coast. The cheque represents funds raised by the inmates, plus a matching amount from the chaplains to buy Bibles for inmates of South Africa’s prisons. PICTURE: Martin Johnson
“It’s remarkable...”says Pastor Dengler of the donation received from Australian inmates of the Kariong Juvenile Correctional Centre. “When inmates can care for each other like this, how much more should the church step up to the podium and say ‘We too can follow the same example and put the love of Christ into action’.”
The couple asked Pastor Dengler whether he ever visited a particular prison and when he said he could go there, they asked him to deliver a message to the man who had killed their son and who was incarcerated there.
“They said we want you to take a message to tell him that we forgive him and that we would love him to come to Christ,” recalls Pastor Dengler.
It took Pastor Dengler around six months to track the man down and only a few weeks ago he was finally about to visit him and deliver the message that the couple had asked him to - that they wanted to forgive him for what he had done.
“He said ‘Isn’t that strange, Reverend? Just this morning I’ve come to this section of the prison and I applied for the restorative justice program but I did not know how to contact the victims of the crime I had committed. I take full responsibility for the murder...and I’m doing a life sentence’. But he said ‘I don’t know how to experience forgiveness in my own heart. Can you help me?’ And then and there I led him to Christ.
“The joy of this whole thing is I have a letter from this (man) to give to those two people in Perth and to tell them that your new son in the faith says ‘Hello’.”
It’s stories like that, says Pastor Dengler, a 59-year-old father of five, which illustrate the joy of working in the prisons in South Africa.
“It’s one in 1,000,” he says. “But it’s worth it.”
Pastor Dengler, president of World Hope Ministries in Africa, was in Australia during October after being invited out by Bible Societies in New South Wales and Western Australia so donors could hear firsthand about his ministry. The relationship between the organisations goes back several years with the Bible Society raising funds for Bibles in South African prisoners and culminated in a visit earlier this year by a small team from the Bible Societies to see the prison ministry.
Among Pastor Dengler's stops in Australia this visit has been the Kariong Juvenile Correctional Centre in New South Wales, where he was able to personally thank inmates for their efforts in raising money for Bibles to be used in South African prisons.
“It’s remarkable...When inmates can care for each other like this, how much more should the church step up to the podium and say ‘We too can follow the same example and put the love of Christ into action’.”
Pastor Dengler, who is the senior pastor of Mayfair Baptist Church in Johannesburg, traces his ministry in the prisons back to an approach made to him by two men visiting his church. He relates how the two men - who were facing attempted murder charges - approached him after a service and asked him for a Bible.
Not having an spare Bible at hand, he took two of his own Bibles and gave them to them along with the discipleship course materials. It transpired that one of the men was sentenced to 10 years jail while the other was set free.
“When we eventually heard from the one who had been set free, he said ‘You know the guy inside, he’s got two or three other guys around that one little book and Bible and they’re doing this course,” Pastor Dengler recalls.
“Well, it grew from there - from the one, we were able to get some more Bibles and took them in and some more books so it grew. It grew to 30. Within a year it grew to 300. Over the past three years it grew to 1,800 men. So we have now an indigenous church inside and from there, they got the vision to pass this content on to other prisoners...That’s how we’re in 173 of the (nation’s) 252 prisons and we have, at this point, 21,000 prisoners studying with us.”
While they send in teams to prisons across the country - in particular the 14,000 inmate Diepkloof Prison which teams visit twice a week, the discipleship course is also also advertised through the “prison edition” of the Christian newspaper, Challenge, 60,000 copies of which are delivered to prisoners each month.
Pastor Dengler says that initial responses to the ad reached as high as 600 one month, a figure which has since settled back to about 130 a month.
“Others write letters to us, saying please help us with this and that...” he says. “We see ourselves as a resource centre and we’re able to supply at least Christian inmates with the necessary material to be able to grow spiritually.”
Asked why he has such a focus on working in prisons, Pastor Dengler answers that the fact South Africa has the highest crime rate in the world means people are touched by that everyday.
“Somebody that we know or family or church member has either hijacked or robbed or raped. It’s ever present with you and when we saw this opportunity - when these two men came to me and when we saw this thing begin to grow - we thought ‘What can we do about crime? We can’t stop it on the outside, that’s the police’s job. But what are we going to do with people who murder and so on?’
“And here God opens the door. And here He starts a movement all on His own through one little discipleship book and a Bible. And we begin to see the tremendous transformation of lives. And we begin to follow-up these men and start a relationship with them. And our church has got involved. And other churches have joined us and got involved with it.
“We believe we are doing our bit for Christ by reaching and touching the hearts of these men. And we’re saying to them ‘You now need to make a difference’. And through the restorative justice program which we encourage them to do, they’re able to come back...to the victim of their crime and apologise and make it up to them.”
Pastor Dengler says the work relies heavily on the grace of God to be able to love people who have confessed to some horrendous crimes.
“It takes a bit to to that,” he says. “In ourselves we can’t do that. I have a very redemptive nature but let me tell you some of these guys repulse me with some of the things that they’ve done. To call them my brother is not an easy thing but I do thank God for Christ - there go I but for the grace of God.”
Pastor Dengler describes the response to the teams which visit prisons as “overwhelming”.
“There’s a tremendous response to the Gospel but obviously we don’t look just for a response, we need to listen to Jesus there so there is an encounter with God and life change and transformation needs to take place in their lives,” he says.
“We don’t just want to put them on a program, we want to make sure that this meets the need of that transformation that has begun in their lives.”