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Adventist prison ministries in Zimbabwe see one-third of nation's offenders enrolled in Bible studies

'Groundwork laid,' now a need for ongoing support: resources, chaplains

Adventist prison ministries in Zimbabwe see one-third of nation's offenders enrolled in Bible studies

Prisoners meet for an Adventist church service inside a Zimbabwean prison. The group is one of several across the country that participate in prison ministries programs led by Adventist business people Luxon and Charity Zembe. [photos courtesy Zimbabwe Union Conference]

Adopt a child. Adopt a pet. Why not adopt a prison?

In Luxon and Charity Zembe's native Zimbabwe, the idea is generating staggering results -- more than one-third of the country's prison population is enrolled in Bible studies and 500 prisoners joined the church last year, marking the first known time in Zimbabwean history prisoners have requested baptism.

Since launching Glenara District Prison Ministries, the Seventh-day Adventist couple and their team have logged many firsts. Their ministry was the first such outreach program Zimbabwe had seen -- tough in a country where societal attitudes toward prisoners are enmeshed in fear and prejudice, often leaving former prisoners ostracized by family and friends and with little hope of rehabilitation.

The Zembes, along with 12 volunteers from their district's Woman's Ministries department, began ministering to the Hwahwa Young Offenders Prison near Gwerau, Zimbabwe, six years ago. Now, they're present in 43 of the nation's prisons -- all but Zimbabwe's two maximum-security prisons -- offering prisoners access to Hope Channel programming, Bible studies and a support network.

Still small, their team now benefits from fledgling partnerships with Adventist churches located near area prisons. Members can lend financial and spiritual support to prisoners without costly long-distance travel.

"When a church is close by and can 'adopt' a prison, this is a very good thing in terms of sustainability," Luxon says. In one such case, prison authorities were so impressed by the dedication of volunteers, they asked a local church to build an extension chapel within the prison complex.

Convincing members to participate is sometimes difficult, though. "Obviously not everybody buys into the idea of working with prisons," Charity says. "This is something you have to go out and do first. Then you come back and show people pictures and videos, tell them stories and say, 'This is the work that is happening within prisons.'"

Show and tell has preceded support from the beginning. When the team first asked whether they could install Hope Channel in several prisons, officials were suspicious, wary the programming contained political messages, Charity said. After watching broadcasts for several months, officials gave permission. Soon afterward, several requested Bible studies, Charity says.

Since then, prison authorities have conducted research, independent of the Adventist Church, to measure the impact of the ministry. "What they discovered is a very significant reduction in repeat offences for those prisoners engaged in the program -- who watch Hope Channel, who take Bible studies," Luxon says.

The Zembes have also observed attitudes changing toward prisoners in the country, thanks in part to a group of prisoners in Harare who formed a gospel choir and last year hit number two on Zimbabwe's music video charts.

"People all of a sudden think, 'Wow, prisoners singing hymns like that? Being involved in music like this?' So the perception is changing," Luxon says.

Previously, when prisoners were released, their families shunned them. "No one would have anything to do with them, but working through the system and with the volunteers, many of these offenders have been rehabilitated and reunited with their families," he says.

While the hit video did wonders for awareness -- the ministry is now known nationwide -- the Zembes struggle to support the growing scope of their ministry.

The couple -- both of whom are business people -- along with other zealous volunteers, have for years donated their own money to keep the ministry financially afloat. Luxon, who previously served as president of Adventist-laymen's Services and Industries for Zimbabwe, is able to secure some resources for television sets and required equipment for Hope Channel, as well as complimentary literature and resources. Twenty additional sets were recently donated by Hope Channel Africa.

Still, the challenge of sustainability persists, Luxon says. The Zimbabwe prison system recently invited the Adventist Church to provide full-time Adventist chaplains for each of the country's prisons. Enthusiasm runs high for the opportunity, but few ministers are available, he says.

"If you look at our pastors in Zimbabwe, you find that each pastor in town, they have got six to eight churches to look after, plus 10 companies. Those in the countryside? There, you find they have 20 churches per pastor. They are just struggling to service their own membership," Luxon says.

As awareness of the project spreads nationwide and beyond, the couple hopes missionaries and other volunteers will show interest in accepting prison chaplaincy positions.

"What drives us into this whole ministry is to see souls being saved. It's unfortunate when groundwork is laid, but you see that you could end up losing that," Luxon says.

-- For CDs and DVDs of the choir, email your mailing address to [email protected].

-- Look for an interview with Charity Zembe on Hope Channel later this year. The Adventist television network's forthcoming show, World of Hope, will feature the couple's ministry. Visit beginning in September for a broadcast schedule.