Eating Christmas lunch with Australian prisoners in Bali was typical of the challenging experiences Uniting Church Deacon Intern Tanya Richards encountered during her recent five and half months of volunteer work with Bali Protestant Church.
“As we sat together and ate food that reminded us of home, true emotions came out as we once again realised where we were and what that meant for some of the people in that room,” Ms Richards said.
Prison ministry was not an involvement Ms Richards had expected when she headed for Bali but it became one of her major focuses.
After attending a daily Indonesian church service in Kerobokan Prison, Ms Richards noticed Australian prisoners sitting in the service but not understanding the language.
She approached the prisoners, including those known as the Bali Nine about doing a Bible study.
“They all jumped at the chance,” she said.
“I spent two days a week in the Prison leading a Bible study, visiting and pastorally caring for both Indonesian and Australian prisoners.
“It was in this experience that I saw the power of God really working in the lives of people who were and still are experiencing things beyond my belief.”
During Ms Richards’ time working in Kerobokan Prison, the sentences of four of the Bali Nine were changed from 20 years to death.
“It was an unexpected ministry. I had only been there three or four weeks and all of a sudden I was talking to these guys about the fact that they had just got the death penalty. So from the very start I was responding with a response of ‘I can see that you are really hurting and I am at least someone who can speak English fluently’.
“A couple of them are from Brisbane so we could talk about the Brisbane River or Riverfire, things that they remember but can’t experience anymore.
“I was very aware of not talking about their sentences or their crimes and just treating them as individuals. And certainly at times, particularly in September when the death sentences came, that became the topic of conversation but that was more one-on-one. But it did come up at times in the Bible study.”
Ms Richards said the Indonesian Government provides only one meal of cold rice, meat and vegetables each day to prisoners and the prison grounds are continually infested with animals of all descriptions.
“The prison was built for 300 people but it currently holds 800. Each cell has about 15 people in it and there is only room to lie down right beside the other people. If you need to walk during the night you would have to walk on people.
“Abuse of all kinds takes place on a regular basis, and fights are a common sight – not just yelling but physical fights ending with major injuries.”
Ms Richards told Journey how corruption is a common occurrence as guards encourage bribes in return for simple things like fresh water.
“These bribes also go as high as buying drugs for prisoners and sexual favours.”
There are currently ten Australians in Kerobokan Prison, six of them on death row.
“For the Indonesians, the Bali Nine and Schapelle Corby are almost a money making scheme. There are so many people trying to bribe their way in to get access to them, but then there are also visitors that come from everywhere.”
Speaking of Kerobokan’s most famous prisoner, Ms Richards said Schapelle Corby was very weary of visitors trying to get access to her.
“She is very private. She has been abused a lot by people in the media posing as Christians to get access to her and get photos and get their story.”
The Bible studies that Ms Richards lead in the prison were always full of surprises and often confronting.
“A girlfriend showed the depth of her love for her boyfriend by performing oral sex in the visiting yard while I lead a discussion about the Kingdom of God and how do we find God in our lives.
“This was followed the next week by someone getting bashed while I lead a discussion about how do we love our neighbour?”
In addition to learning to deal with almost anything while leading a Bible study Ms Richards found the one-to-one conversations with prisoners the most rewarding.
“I spent many hours talking with many people about how to hold to God, in moments when nothing made sense.
“A lot of them are still struggling to find that Christ and understand the depth of love.
“They are on a roller coaster twenty four hours a day. They see things in the prison that challenge their faith and understanding of God every second.
“Then at other times they witness amazing stuff like when people share their resources.”
After such a powerful trip, Ms Richards has found coming back to day-to-day life in Brisbane difficult but has remained in contact with members of the Bali Nine via text messaging.
“I have a heart for them. I’ve met them, I’ve spoken to them, and I’ve seen them as real people with real emotions so it is hard to walk away.
“It was Andrew Chan’s birthday two days ago so I was able to send him a text message.
“At the end of the day, I am a servant of God and it is up to God where I end up.
“At the time I saw myself just as an Australian there to talk to them and then realised that I had some training that could help these guys. Then I discovered that these guys are really hungry to hear about God, so that is where the journey really started.”
Photo : Deacon Intern Tanya Richards spent five months in Bali ministering to prisoners, including the Bali Nine. Photo by Osker Lau