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Growing up behind bars

The new boys look blank, not knowing what’s going to happen. They sit at the back and don’t yet have friends. They listen intently, ears raised, to this foreigner asking them questions. Some look confused and almost lost in a sea of faces. This is their new home for at least 18 months, possibly 3 years.

One boy rests his head on the desk, and nods off. Another 2 or 3 chat among themselves. But as the music begins and the words are projected, almost everyone joins in to sing – songs of truth and joy and comfort; songs about the living God, the Creator, the One who helps the weak. Not that all these boys are Christians. No, some have traditional Chinese beliefs, others simply don’t know and yet a number genuinely believe and are growing in their faith.

‘Taoyuan Reform School’ is where a group of us go two Saturday mornings a month. Adolescents convicted of criminal offences anywhere in northern Taiwan can be sent there. These students eat, sleep, learn and play together. Conditions are strict and regimented. The boys won’t go outside their walls again until release day. Some joke and chat among themselves, though no one wants to be there. At times I mix up the boys’ names. Thankfully, they are very forgiving. We go with one intention, to introduce these boys to the God of love. The class we visit, with about 60 students aged 12 to 20, listen as we go through key stories in the Bible.

The afternoons are allocated for one-on-one follow-up. In trepidation I call one student. He’s been having a hard time. “Don’t be depressed,” I say sheepishly, thinking in vain for something better to say. “How can I not be?” he replies, “Everyone here is depressed.”

Another boy speaks of the ‘darkness’ inside and when pressed further, replies, “It’s secret, I’m not able to talk about it.”

Yet one boy, recently released, grew much on the inside. He trusts in God and prays earnestly for others. He was even nicknamed ‘pastor’.

Another boy has also experienced a change of sorts. He has gone from feeling quite estranged and distant from God to recently beginning to pray. Small steps – but in the right direction.

Are all these boys reformed at the end of their sentence? Well, no one wants to return. Some have definitely changed. Can we really make a difference in these boys’ lives? I can’t help but think that those who depend on Jesus have the greatest chance of steering their lives safely around the troubles and temptations that will come their way. Thank you Lord for this open door to speak love, hope and grace into these needy boys’ lives.

Will McKelleher, Taipei

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