3rd September, 2012
Hands in pockets, head down, I trudged backwards and forwards along the high, bluestone wall of the prison yard. I had been ‘shanghaied’ from an open camp back to Pentridge maximum-security prison on a drug related charge. It was a week before Christmas 1981 - my fifth since entering prison as a 22-year-old. Minutes were like seconds, hours like days in the distortion of jail time.
In the midst of robotic pacing a sudden thought: Have you found happiness in your life; real meaning and purpose? The question resonated within me for only the night before as I stood in a crucifix-like position staring at the filthy bed sheet, my hands touching both walls of the tiny cell, I’d had another thought: Hang yourself with that sheet from the window bars, and it’ll all be over. Happiness? I needed to find a reason to live.
CHANGED LIVES: Arthur Bolkas and his wife Andie.
Sitting still in the darkness, I pondered Jesus’ last words that I’d read: "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you" (Luke 11:13). I began to cry uncontrollably from a place deep within that needed purging, and called out to Jesus through my grief for forgiveness, cleansing and peace.
I began to reflect over my life. Raised on welfare in a Greek migrant family, I had managed to excel at school. A popular student, successful athlete, school captain and dux of my final year, my future looked promising. However four years into an arts/law degree my life was a mess as I sought fulfilment in a ‘jet-set’ lifestyle of drug addiction and armed-robberies. Despair, hatred and pornography had further twisted me into someone I now feared.
Then another, much stranger thought: Arthur, if you haven’t found real happiness, why not see what the Bible has to say?
What, the Bible?! I resented Christians; they were boring and gullible and screwed me up when I was a kid. I rejected the thought, but it came back to me again and again until I asked myself: Why am I so afraid of the Bible? It’s the most published and influential book in human history, and I’ve never read it. What have I got to lose?
An officer let me through the gate to check out the bookshelf behind him. Disappointed not to find a Bible, I turned to leave when the silver cross on a man’s lapel caught my eye. I approached the chaplain awkwardly.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly, young man” he said.
“How can I ... find God in my life?”
I expected the standard spiel about being ‘saved’ or ‘born again,’ and would have asked “How do you experience that?” because in the van en route back to Pentridge I had tried praying and repenting to God but nothing happened, and I was led to believe I would feel somehow different. Maybe I got the formula wrong, I wasn’t sincere enough, or there simply was no God - whom I cursed and pounded with my fists on the metal wall.
Confronted by my question, the chaplain said something about being close to God when he was hang-gliding up in the sky away from life’s cares and problems. What about Jesus, being born again, the ‘sinner’s prayer’ that I’d heard preached in church as a kid? I thought. I know more about this than him. Pacing the yard again, I felt even more depressed. Christianity? Rubbish!
That night I flushed porn mags down the toilet, determined to find something decent to fill my perverted mind over the 17 hours locked up. The next day whilst sorting through my belongings in the prison’s dungeon store-room, I reached into a large tea-chest full of books, holding three up to a beam of light and discovering the middle one was the New Testament. Like a movie-reel, I recollected the previous day’s events.
I stripped naked in the sweltering heat of my cell, perspiration dripping from my elbows to the floor, and began reading the Gospel of Matthew.
Suddenly the light went out. Six hours had passed. Sitting still in the darkness, I pondered Jesus’ last words that I’d read: "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you" (Luke 11:13). I began to cry uncontrollably from a place deep within that needed purging, and called out to Jesus through my grief for forgiveness, cleansing and peace.
A grinding key in the cell door awoke me. An officer poked his head in. I blinked and said “Good morning sir,” then thought What’s wrong with me, calling a screw sir?! Yet I felt strangely different.
In the chilly morning air, mad Mike stood sentinel-like in the middle of the yard wearing just a T-shirt. I approached him, offering coffee and tobacco. He was wary, like a threatened animal. Compassionate by nature, I knew something else was going on inside me as my eyes welled with tears. Just then my friend Marwan approached.
“Hey Arthur, what’re you giving him your stuff for?” Staring at me now, he said “What’s happened to you? Your eyes, your face is glowing.” Marwan looked around at others, then intently back at me. “It’s just you; only you’ve got it.” He even got me to look into the latrine’s dingy stainless steel ‘mirror’ to see what he could see. Amused at first, I realised that whatever it was I felt, and was somehow reflected in my face, was related to the previous night.
Discreetly pulling out the little book, and not quite knowing what to say, I said “Yesterday I was reading this.” Marwan looked up from the New Testament, “What, have you found God?”
“God! No, no” I stammered, not yet appreciating that God had in fact found me.
That was 30 years ago. A lot has happened since, including a failed marriage, relapse into drug addiction, gradual healing and restoration, and the blessing of my wife Andie and two sons.
Arthur Bolkas is the CEO of PASS Ltd, of which Five8 is a ministry.
24th September, 2012
Unlike Arthur, I (Andie) was brought up in a middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Christian home, characterised by youth-group, family holidays, a passion for U2 and art.
I became a Christian when I was 17. I had always gone to church with my family but now I realised faith was about a relationship with Jesus rather than just religion. I loved that Jesus' heart was for the oppressed and marginalised. Believing in Him made me want to make a difference in the world.
So, at the age of 18, I attended an information session for potential volunteers to visit girls in prison. It was the first time Arthur and I met - he was the guest speaker. Over the years, after dating and marrying Arthur, prison had become a big part of my life. We would often visit male prisoners in the adult system and always had ex-offenders over for dinner or even stay with us for a time while they found their feet in the community. I learned a lot from these people - about unconditional love, determination to change, hope and trust.
Then one day, around four years ago, our phone rang. I knew it was a prisoner by the recorded message outlining the conditions of the call so I tried to hand the receiver to Arthur. He was too busy and waved me away. I knew our number was the only connection some prisoners had to the outside world so I couldn't hang up. The conversation began and I asked this young man, Johnny, about his day. He laughed and told me he was learning to play guitar but only knew one song, The Power of the Gospel, by Ben Harper. I could not believe it. I had, that very same morning, gone to JB HiFi to buy the Ben Harper album for that very same song! We instantly became friends. The following Sunday at my church, Footscray Church of Christ, I asked if anyone could visit Johnny with me. Two people volunteered, and Five8 was born.
Five8 means ‘my mate’ in rhyming prison slang. Five8 is modelled on a highly successful Canadian Mennonite initiative, and involves three to six volunteers visiting an inmate and continuing that support post release. The aim is to provide pro-social influence through genuine relationship and community, thereby reducing victims of crime. Five8 is being replicated in NSW, and will hopefully spread elsewhere. I am also currently developing a Five8 Social Enterprise (sewing boutique products with parolees) to provide ex-offenders with job readiness skills and to raise funds for the Five8 initiative.
Five8 is making a difference. Johnny's life is changing, despite being in prison. He is doing tertiary studies, is drug free, and has become a Christian. Joanne is two years out, studying at TAFE and is not looking back. Frank successfully completed his first ever parole and, despite relapsing into drugs, managed to pull himself free because, For the first time in my life I had something good to come back to. You guys are my friends, my family. I realise now just what my Five8s mean to me and what blessings God has given me for my suffering. Love you guys so, so much. Feel like crying my heart out I'm so happy. Thanks just doesn't seem enough.
I have learnt a lot about myself, my faith, and life generally through Five8. It has taught me that, when you scratch the surface of someone who is in prison, they are a lot like everyone else but have many more protective layers. I have understood that most people are in jail because they sustained broken hearts in their formative years and never fully recovered, often masking their pain with drugs and other addictions. I have realised that learning to break free from destructive habits begins with a determination to change, coupled with a supportive community of people who love unconditionally, do not judge, and can speak into lives with caring honesty. I have learnt that God has a special place in his heart for prisoners and ex-offenders, and that I often see Jesus in them. In trying to develop Five8, I have also discovered that “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Mt 9:37).
Please consider how you might support Five8.
Arthur and Andie are available to speak at your church, men’s and women’s meetings, youth groups, breakfasts and camps, or any other forum. All gifts made to Five8 are tax deductible.
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