Tim Richardson visits the Sao Paulo Youth Prison.
“Imagine our surprise when instead of being shown around Sao Paulo, the city, our friends George and Cally called my colleague Nick and me at the hotel to tell us we were going to visit the youth prison where George and Cally work out their calling and The Eagle Project has its impact on the ground. We were both thrilled and daunted, not least because prison regulations meant Nick had to change from his shorts into long trousers with little notice having already checked out of the hotel and packed his bag.
And so we arrived at the gate to the prison, an intimidating and unforgiving concrete structure surrounded by deafening traffic. Walking in through numerous security checks and meeting a variety of wardens and staff, I was struck by the fact that there were a lot of women working in and supporting the prison, which is an all male inmates detention centre. And yet, how clever, as it is women who for many of the young men will represent their security, as most have grown up in broken homes knowing perhaps just a mother.
When finally we reached the achingly hot courtyard surrounded on all sides by accommodation units (cells to you and me) and an unfathomably high wall, my sense of being so far out of my comfort zone was becoming worrying. What on earth would I say to murderers, drug pushers, rapists and serial offenders that I read about or see depicted in films but have never met? They would surely be mean and dark individuals, desensitized from years of having no morals and no boundaries to their lives.
I love it when God shows up. For God was and is surely in that place. “For you visited me when I was in prison” it says in scripture and I had learned these words as a boy and young man myself. To see George and Cally living out this word in the flesh and to be part of it for just a few hours was an emotional roller coaster for sure, and one on which God was delighting in taking me and my colleague Nick for a ride. My fear and uncertainty was soon replaced by awe and wonder and amazement. One young man joined us on the “tour” to see cells, classrooms, kitchens and showers. His story is both heart rending and joyous. Here is a young man who at the age of thirteen saw his mother commit suicide and then got his identity from being a gang member committing all manner of the worst deeds known to man. Then he met God. He cries a lot. His face is bright and shows no visible sign of trauma and pain. And yet that must be there for him below the surface every minute of his life.
He knows God’s love and forgiveness and through George and the other wardens he has met men who can role model a different way of being for him. He is due to be released soon and has some hope for the future. Despite the fact that the state expunges his record once he is 18, it will not be easy for him and the other young men as they struggle to find meaning either amidst the chaos of their previous lives or more likely with a new start completely.
My curiosity about how it must be to be a young man in prison was turned on its head as they were just as much, if not more so, very interested and fascinated by Nick and me. And God was there. We spoke with the group of sixty boys, more attentive and curious than any corporate audience that I have ever spoken with. We talked about our lives in the UK, our families, our hopes for the Olympics, British justice, and football of course – a common language around the world and something that bridges divides. My purchase that very morning of a Corinthians shirt proved a real vote winner.
We spoke for maybe an hour and could have gone on for much longer. I recall one young man who asked some brilliant and perceptive questions with such a bright face and enthusiasm that I found myself encouraging him to think of being a teacher – such was his hunger for learning. Through simple engagement with the young men, they told us quickly who the best footballer was in the group, who the comedian was and other talents within the prison.
As we left, I found myself holding back tears (not good to look too emotional in a prison I figured!) as I shook hands of thieves and murderers who are young men who have got lost along the way. I was moved as we spoke with the Director, a humble and inspiring man with an MBA who felt called to make a difference and try his best to turn lives around. He and George make an impressive partnership, and God is clearly using it to transform damaged people.
What did we leave with? I saw the potential in young lives, robbed by circumstances and upbringing. I saw hope sitting alongside reality and tough futures. I experienced warmth of shared humanity and God’s touch on our lives from just a short visit. I have been changed through an experience that will live with me forever.
Sure I experience God when working with senior leaders and corporate people but I have to say, it’s hard to find him sometimes in such surroundings. If you want to know God and find God, go to where the poor people are. Go to where the widows are and go to where the prisoners are – and young people especially. Weep with Him over broken lives and then you will find God’s heart for his people. And a huge, warm, loving and forgiving heart it must surely be.”
Tim Richardson is a Director of It’s Original Ltd which provides leadership development solutions to large corporate clients and charities and individuals. He was working in Sao Paulo with one of his client organisations and hopes to return.