Forty years ago, I spent some time as an inmate in prison. It was December, just before Christmas and I was admitted for two weeks. Before you get too worried, I did so voluntarily as part of my training for ordination. You could never do it now – it would never pass the risk assessment!
I arrived one evening, was given the prison clothes and taken to my cell. My fellow inmates knew nothing about my arrival, and I was left to introduce myself. I lived the full prison life, including having a torch shone in my eyes every hour at night to make sure I was still alive. I ate the terrible food (even the porridge!). I did prison work. I witnessed some brutal fights, one suicide attempt and one failed attempt at escape. I played in probably the most violent football match I have ever encountered. And I spent much time talking to my fellow prisoners and hearing their stories. I touched something of the darkness of so many of their lives and counted it a privilege to do so.
I learnt something, even in two weeks as a voluntary inmate, of that complete loss of control over your own destiny, over your own life, that total inability to make choices, the desperate gulf between you and your loved ones.
In recent months, I have been reflecting on the connections between life in prison and life for seafarers in the current pandemic. There are big differences, of course, but parallels as well. With up to 400,000 now working long beyond their contract ends, perhaps more, and with much shore leave still cancelled or severely curtailed, the situation remains grave. Uncertainty, stress, worry about family and exhaustion are huge issues. They are in a difficult place, trapped on their vessels, many unable even to leave at the end of what some might be feeling are their “sentences”.
Many of us are also experiencing small elements of this through our own “lockdowns”, with limited freedoms and reduced ability to mix with family and friends. St Paul wrote some of his letters from prison. I have been reading some of those recently, looking for any of his “lessons from lockdown”. The letter to the Philippians is one such. We know that Paul had his own extreme stresses. He once wrote of being so “utterly, unbearably crushed, that we despaired of life itself”. But this letter is optimistic, warm, full of determination, hope, and thankfulness. So where did Paul find his strength?
One very important fact is that this is a thank you letter. Paul has received a gift in prison from the Philippians, brought to him by Epaphroditus – a “fragrant offering” Paul calls it. That is enough in itself to have given him a lockdown bounce. How vital it is when we are in dark places to feel the love and value of others. I recently heard someone speaking of his faith in the midst of an appallingly debilitating disease. “How do you experience God’s love in all this?” he was asked. “Through my family and friends and their care for me,” he said.
The “lockdown” support MtS is giving to seafarers, in ports, through digital platforms, through advocacy, by our Family Support Networks and much beyond is truly a transformational lifeline. One seafarer recently wrote to us “I just felt that telling my experience to the Mission to Seafarers would alleviate the depression and anxiety I am currently experiencing. I know I can trust you guys because every time I go to the Mission it is so relaxing and refreshes my spirit.”