As we celebrate the opening of the centenary, Lay Missionary Haiti Muller reflects on her journey in the prison ministry where she gets inspiration from the work of Columban Fr Francis Chapman.
Where there is heart there is love; where there is love there is joy; where there is joy there is God. Coming back home from prison visitation, I felt the beauty of nature, trees so green with cool breeze, birds singing loudly and the heaven starts to open with its blessing of rain making my tiredness go away, hoping that my brothers in jail would feel the same experiences that I have; my heart melt and my tears dropped. I miss them.
My mind and heart are restless but how can I help them? What can I offer them? Or is it enough just to give them hope? I failed to find answers to my own questions so I kept quiet and said, “Lord, I need you. I can’t do this alone. Please be with me.” Then slowly some answers came to mind. “I was naked and you clothe me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:36). This verse in the bible touches my heart to love and give my time fully for the inmates.
It has been over a year that I have been a missionary volunteer in the male prison. As I reflect on my journey, I remember that on my first week, I was so nervous knowing that my Visayan language is not good but I was challenged by my coordinator to speak it. One day, we went to jail to follow up on the profiles of the inmates.
My coordinator told me to interview some of them. At the thought of hearing their stories, I was excited to meet them but at the same time I was nervous. When the first inmate came and sat beside me, I was confident enough to greet him, “maayong buntag, kuya” (good morning, big brother). He responded and I again said, “kumusta?” (How are you?). He started to talk in Visayan language but I only smiled because I didn’t introduce myself first because my Visayan language is limited. When he heard me talk, he knew that I was still struggling with my language so he started to talk to me in English. I was so happy that he can speak English but when my coordinator found out that we talked in English she told the inmate not to talk to me in English saying further, “speak Visaya to her so that she can practice too.” I laughed and tried to talk in Visaya again. It made my day.
Day after day, week after week, I see in myself the joy of my encounter them even with my limited language. Laughing and smiling together through the pain they face in jail makes them feel light. Some of their stories are sad; some are neglected and abandoned by their own families but they still have faith in themselves. After hearing their stories, I came to realize how difficult it is to cope inside the jail which is so crowded with 2900 inmates and the space for them is very small. But they always find space in the chapel to rest and sleep. The chapel is a place for them to have space and activities like mass, spiritual workshop, counselling and also a place where I can give them my time.
However, the joy I encountered in prison slowly faded away because of the heat. When we started to talk with them I could feel the heat and I started to fan myself with my hand without knowing that one of the inmates excused himself and went looking for fan. When he handed me the fan, I felt ashamed and tears started to fall. I realised I shouldn’t do that in front of them as I was just there not even a month and was showing signs of giving up because of the heat, but remembered they have struggled for years, and still manage to smile. They taught me a lesson.
Every time I come home, I always go to the chapel and offer my day of joy and pain in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I pray for the inmates and myself to be strong because this helps me to be relieved. I take as a blessing every experience.
In the jail chapel, there is a painting of a priest. Every time I visit the jail, I always pass by it. I asked one of the inmates who the man in the painting was and he answered, “You said you are a Columban Missionary but you don’t know him? He is Fr Chapman, a Columban priest. He loved us so much. He used to hear our confession, provided us food and he built this chapel.” I was so amazed upon hearing Fr Chapman’s story. His story gave me courage to give the inmates more place in my heart. From that time on, I don’t want to live a day without visiting the jail. There are times I have to attend to other duties so I am unable to visit which makes me sad.
Eight months through being a jail volunteer, I started to think of what I can do to lessen the heat in the chapel. Through the help of my coordinator, we were able to come up with a renovation plan to put an insulator on the roof. Through our prayers and trusting God that He will do the rest, we were able to find some benefactors who helped secure materials for the renovation. Likewise, my ministry coordinator also helped financially so our dream could happen.
The inmates helped with the labour and the renovation went well. Every day, I visited the construction and couldn't help admire the inmates for helping one another complete the work. The renovation is now complete and the heat is less. I thank God for what he has done for the sake of the inmates through the generosity of the benefactors. In October last year the chapel was blessed to the glory of God. It was truly a blessing. Words are not enough to express my gratitude.
I thank God for making things possible through the generous support of our benefactors, families and friends. I also would like to thank the life of Fr Chapman who inspired me to give my life fully on mission. I salute my ministry coordinator for mentoring and challenging me each day to do my best and give God the glory and put my trust in Him. To the inmates, thank you for giving me joy and helping me grow each day to be a good missionary and being patient with my limitation to speak the language.
To my Columban family especially my fellow lay missionaries in Mindanao, thank you for being with me especially when I feel that life is difficult. Last but not the least, I would like to thank my dad for always listening to me, to my mum (who is now in heaven) for praying for me and to my siblings for always providing for me when I needed something on my mission. To my nieces and my nephews thank you for always making me smile. To those who are part of my life journey and those who pray for me, thank you for everything. Without you all I know I won’t make it to be who I am today.
Let God unite us in prayer. May the Lord always bless and guide us. “I was naked and you clothe me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:36).
Haiti Muller is a Columban Lay Missionary working in the Philippines.
* (Names of persons in the original story are deliberately not disclosed in this edited version to protect the identity of the concerned).