Correctional centres aren’t exactly the first place in which most people would want to volunteer but for volunteer chaplain Fotuika Ruiz it’s a place where she feels called to serve. Ben Tupou reports.
The last line of the service promise for UnitingCare Community Prison Ministry reads, “Our strength, our resources, our blessings and our growth are all found in Him”. For Fotuika Ruiz this statement is something she can absolutely testify as true, preparing each Monday at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre with deep prayer and meditation.
In these often dark and hostile environments, chaplains embody Christ’s message of compassion, hope and grace. Each volunteer chaplain must possess the appropriate qualities, undergo security clearance and thorough training arranged by the Queensland Corrective Services before entering a correctional centre.
“You never know what sort of day you are going to have,” says Fotuika.
A call to serve
For Fotuika, volunteering is a calling that began five years ago.
“[Prison ministry] has always been at the back of my mind at that time,” she says.
“I remember I visited Sunnybank Uniting Church and the lady sharing that Sunday was part of prison ministry.”
The chance visit is what Fotuika feels was her defining moment and confirmation about her call to serve in the prison ministry program.
This strong sense of purpose and calling upon her life has been the one motivation helping her overcome the challenges and sometimes exhausting days.
“I sometimes feel sad leaving [the correction centre] knowing what I am leaving behind … They are part of my family … my brothers and sisters in Christ. Your brothers and sisters in Christ!” she says compassionately.
Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future
Growing up in the friendly islands of Tonga where the value of family and community hold great importance in the culture, Fotuika shares how her cultural upbringing had shaped her ministry.
“There was a time where I lived in a crowded environment … there was a lot of people around. Extended family from the outer islands came and lived with us for schooling … we didn’t have much but we had the heart of sharing.
“At dinner my mother would always cook and serve others, making sure that everyone had enough food before she sat and ate.”
However the passing of her parents and certain life experiences in the later years of her life brought on some difficult times and desperate pleas.
“As I grew up and everyone had left … I was on my own with my kids. It was definitely challenging … I just had to pray and ask God for help.”
The dramatic shift from being part of a wider community to somewhat isolation is also an experience that inmates she interacts with have felt.
“Jesus came down to die for sinners like them and myself,” she says.
Fotuika’s strong Christian upbringing in the islands meant that she has always had a firm belief that God would not leave nor forsake her even through the trials and tribulations—a message of hope she shares with every inmate she encounters.
When I was in prison you visited me
The stories of her interactions behind bars continue this theme of hope.
“One day I finished work and I was walking to the train station. I rarely meet other people along the way but this time a man was coming from the other direction. I looked at him and he looked me and as I passed him … he said, ‘Thank you so much for coming to visit me in jail. I’m a free man!’”
Similar stories of how the prison ministry has impacted inmates were shared but the extraordinary story of one troubled and violent inmate in the courtyard seems to illustrate the transformative power of the prison ministry.
“I walked in the workout area and there was this man sitting on the bench. He was really upset
and angry at everything—the system, the guards, everything.
“I sat with him. I sat there and my heart went out to him … tears flowed down my face.”
Fotuika tells how the inmate became more irate and volatile to the extent where the guards and even other inmates came to intervene for her safety.
Although she had tears flowing down her face at the time, when sharing the story Fotuika said softly, “Your presence is important … just being there, even if you don’t say anything,
The inmate noticed the tears and that Fotuika refused to leave his side even in the midst of his explosive fit.
He eventually calmed down and uttered the words, “I’m sorry Miss … I’m just so angry.”
The mere presence of prison chaplains in these often dark places make the rehabilitation process in correctional centres seem a little hopeful.
“It takes time but they sometimes come around.”
The once distressed man in the courtyard is now a regular attendee to the church service held in the centre.
Fotuika describes the inmates that she interacts with as polite and often very courteous, but acknowledges the journey that it takes to build trust and respect in the relationship.
Uniting all in Christ
The prison ministry within the Uniting Church is no doubt a service that Fotuika is most passionate about and as a member of Park Church Tongan Uniting congregation since 1988, the Uniting Church’s particular emphasis on Christ is what she loves most about the church.
“I love that we are a Christ-centred church … that we are always trying to be Christ-like.”
She continues to share her love for a church that is not perfect but strives to see Christ in all things and in all people. For her this definitely includes our incarcerated brothers and sisters.
“Why would I go and enjoy myself while they are sitting in there … the least I could do is share my day with my brothers and sisters.”
For more information about prison ministry service visit uccommunity.org.au/prison-ministry or call 07 3867 2550.