Prison is home to nearly 725,000 of Brazil’s population according to a survey by the department of pastoral care in prisons released in September 2018. According to an official statement from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, the system has about half that number.
"I spent seven long years in prison without any perspective," says José Vanderlei Leal, former inmate that today works for the Prison Mission Ministry, connected to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Born in Piauí, he went to São Paulo in search of job opportunities but ended up involved with drugs and crime. After several escapes, he was detained in the city of Marabá in Pará. That is where he met Hermínio Barbosa dos Santos, a volunteer who makes regular visits to the prison.
A close relationship developed between the inmate and missionary as a result of these visits. "She really showed someone's love for me. In that situation where I was, I could not believe that anyone could love me," says Leal.
This perspective is what also motivated Ruth Tesche, known as “Mother Ruth.” According to her, affection is the greatest need that prisoners have. And that was the main difficulty she had to overcome herself. Today, when an inmate is released and has nowhere to go, she houses them. They only leave when they have a job and are able to pay their own rent.
Tesche began her prison ministry as a "messenger" to the children of those serving time or awaiting a court decision. She delivered letters back and forth, but in her mind she was only helping the children. When she first began visiting the prison 25 years ago she says, "I did not like inmates; I hated prisoners!" Somehow she understood that this would be her life mission, however.
She divided her time between her work as a government employee in Maringá, Paraná, and trips to the prison unit. Gradually, she gained respect from both prisoners and the prison boards. Tesche calls them all "the kids," the children of the heart. "A person cannot survive if he or she is not loved," she points out.
Leal was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church because of the strong influence of the prison mission in Pará. Tesche says that, like him, more than 2,000 people converted to Adventism throughout her two decades of work.
Re-socialization and post-prison life
In an article published by law graduate Angélica Freitas, she affirms that "this religious experience reestablishes the meaning of existence, teaching issues essential to living in society such as the importance of loving others, humility, and solidarity. It is apt to the rescue of humanitarian values, producing the sense of communion with something transcendent. "
This was the theme of the First National Symposium on Prison Mission, promoted by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in northern Brazil, hosted by Amazonia Adventist College in Benevides, Brazil. Ivanildo C. Pereira, head of the North Brazil Union Mission Personal Ministries and Sabbath School department, explains that the goal was to encourage volunteers to establish centers in municipalities that have prison units.
The event also drew the attention of psychiatrist Irienu César, Jeconias Vieira Lopes Neto, the Youth Ambassador of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and Judge Vanderley Oliveira, who works directly in this ministry in the state of Pará.
"We are working on the issue of mental health, the legal terms of the penitentiary system, theology (so that the participants understand that God has a biblical concern with the people in prison), as well as the social context that involves all of this," says Pereira. In addition to lectures presented at the symposium, workshops were given to teach strategies in reaching the objective of re-socializing men and women who go through the prison system.