Joy – Mercy’s work to keep hope alive in prison

Ask Sister Joy Danvers about Mercy’s resolve to “keep hope alive in our world today”, and she has no problem linking this to her work as prison chaplain.

“Many of the men who come here have no hope left. They have messed up their own and others’ lives. They’ve been abandoned by family and friends.

“If by visiting them I can give them something to anchor their lives on again, hope may be reborn.”

Joy is part of an ecumenical chaplaincy team at Waikeria Prison, the country’s largest prison, just outside Te Awamutu. She works 20 hours a week, visiting prisoners and helping to lead Sunday services.

For more than a year, she has been visiting three older men each week, aged 76, 81 and 86, two of them on walking frames. “These men are ‘lifers’ and get very few visitors, if any.”

Waikeria is home to more than 1000 sentenced and remand prisoners, with security classifications ranging from minimum to high-medium. They are from all races, predominantly Maori and Pacific Islanders.

All denominations are represented; Joy doesn’t know which they belong to, unless they tell her. “I take each man as I find him. If he’s a Catholic, I try to see him each week. Once he is in minimum security, I’m able to take him Communion.”

Joy says that the greatest need of prisoners is for the chance to speak and be really listened to. “I always tell prisoners that whatever they say is in confidence. This usually draws a great sigh of relief. Knowing they can speak freely, and be heard, is a huge factor in their lives.”

Time spent one-to-one is usually from 30 minutes to an hour. Prisoners on remand can ask to see a chaplain. Referrals are made by staff, often from the prison’s ‘at risk’ unit. “Officers will often tell me when they know that someone would welcome a visit from a chaplain.”

While another Sister of Mercy serves as a prison volunteer in Christchurch, Joy is the only member of her Congregation working as a prison chaplain.

“It was one of Catherine McAuley’s earliest ministries,” she recalls. “I see my chaplaincy as a way of bringing mercy, love and peace to those I meet.”

Reprinted from Mana Atawhai Mercy at Work 2009