Message South Africa is part of the Message family which is a worldwide movement that exists to share the Christian message with hard to reach young people through Prisons Ministry, Community Transformation and Christ-Centred Enterprise.
I had the privilege of sitting down with three of the local members to talk a little bit about the impact they are having and hear some of the challenges and opportunities that have opened up. Jess is the Message Enterprise Project Manager and helped give me a bit of an understanding of what The Message is all about.
The Message has a strong focus on engaging with people holistically, realising that it can be dangerous to compartmentalise a person [prison life vs normal life, relationship life vs business life etc] as all areas of life are integrated and affect each other. Particularly when it comes to the work they do in prisons, they see it as essential that intervention within the prison walls can be largely meaningless without following it up with a focus on employment needs when they are released.
The Message South Africa currently works in four areas:
# Prison Outreach – with the main focus of work being done at Drakenstein through an entrepreneurship program that 27 young men are currently involved in. This program has a very strict entrance interview process to really try and ensure that participants are serious about it.
# Community Transformation – Eden teams are formed by individuals and families and move into an area not normally considered as a place people will choose to move into, and through building relationship with their neighbours, find ways of getting involved in community upliftment while continuing with their regular lives.
# Creative Mission – The Message looks to use the arts to inspire and connect with young people on a deeper level. They currently has a band called Kinetic IV that reaches out to communities and schools through dancing, rapping and singing.
# Enterprise – The Soft Machine is the first vehicle that The Message is using as a means of providing employment for ex-prisoners who have gone through their programs. Within the next two months they are hoping to launch an exciting new brand [they are calling a ‘Redemptive Enterprise Brand’] covering a number of microenterprises, including a clothing and a furniture range, with more to follow in the future.
I then had an opportunity to talk with Jade [centre] and Siphe [far right], two former prisoners who are the first hired staff and are presently responsible for the running of The Soft Machine, a mobile business that sells gourmet soft-serve, made from fresh natural ingredients, at various local events.
I asked them about some of the Challenges they faced coming out of prison and looking to re-establish themselves as part of society.
It depends on the individual. Particularly the kind of support structure you have when you come out. It can be quite easy to go back to your old ways as it is more of a natural flow. The high stats of those being released from prison going back to prison are not simply because the individual didn’t mean it but because so much is stacked up against you.
One of the challenges is the different structures that exist inside. For example, you have someone who turns the lights on and off for you. So you can get used to the routine.
You are constantly being reminded about your sentence. A big challenge is being taken out of an environment you know and being placed into a new one.
People don’t believe in you. You feel the need to prove yourself on the outside. You learn to quickly understand that people are always watching you. And people can be impatient with you. The same people who will be judgemental towards you are also not providing the platforms to help you succeed.
The stereotypes people hold on those coming out of prison. Once you have a criminal record, there is not much hope for you.
I asked them to share about some things that had made it easier for them in their personal journeys.
While in prison I built a circle of people I could connect with, who were mostly Christians running different courses in prison. The relationships built while in prison helped form some of that support structure when I was on the outside.
Taking small opportunities while in prison helped to build up hope. There is not much opportunity to be in control of something or manage something while on the inside and so any time that opportunity came in any way, just seizing it and making the most of it really helped a lot.
Having an employment opportunity straight after prison helped a great deal as that is unheard of.
Coming out was an opportunity to quieten down the voices that tell you constantly that you are not good enough or remind you why you got there in the first place or that you won’t succeed.
Those who come out and make something of themselves really give hope to those who are left behind. It’s like we are paving the way for them to succeed when their turn comes.
We chatted a little about the concept of having trust given to you before it was in a sense earned and Siphe and Jade both spoke about the process they had gone through.
We were part of a Soccer Program in prison which included soccer trials and the opportunity to compete as you would on the outside. This space [being inside with all the other prisoners] acts as a sort of incubator – it tests your character and shows what you are truly made of. This becomes a bigger challenge once you are released but at least you have had that time already to show what you can accomplish.
Then there is the MEP [Message Entrepreneurship Program] which is the course run inside the prison. At the moment it has been being run for six months, but the idea is to eventually extend it to first 8 months and then a year. There is a vigorous process of selection and it works as a continuous mentorship program as well as creating the opportunity once you are outside of the prison to stay connected and be mentored and hopefully the opportunity for employment down the line.
Siphe and Jade are the first two who have had some experience of this program and so I asked them what kind of responsibility they felt in terms of paving the way for those who will follow.
For the most part we see the positives in being pioneers of this path. One benefit has been the opportunity to go back with the MEP course in prison and to bring hope by sharing about life on the outside. We have taken the opportunity to remind those still in prison to seize any opportunities that they get while they are inside and to really focus on the small things available and then to build from there. Often when you are inside you have this idealistic end point idea that maybe you want to be the CEO of a company and we can help them to break it down into reachable goals and remind them that it is a step by step process that will take a lot of time and patience.
From the business perspective, The Soft Machine started out as we did and so as it has grown so we have grown. It was ridiculously stressful at times as we were thrown into the deep end and pretty much trying to figure out how this thing worked together as we progressed. But when we look back and see how far we have come, then we can really appreciate that that was a strength, even if it didn’t always feel like it at the time.
One thing we have realised is the importance of people who will stand in the gap for you and take a chance, believing in the lost and the least. We now also know that we can be those people for others and that is a source of joy.
I had a really great time just chatting to Jade and Siphe, hearing a little of their stories and just experiencing some of the vibe they carry with them as they work together under The Message. These are definitely two passionate young men who know what they stand for and where they are going and they are looking to help as many other people around them to succeed on the way as they possibly can. One last thing that stood out for me from our conversation was this:
Society doesn’t understand the huge part it plays in seeing people go back to prison.
That line really struck me. It is easy to look down upon and judge and be suspicious and feel all righteously justified when an ex prisoner ends up going back to jail, but if we are not choosing to be a part of the solution, then we are a part of the problem. I think our prisons have a long way to go before they move from being places that are punitive [punishing] to places that are restorative [creating opportunities for change] but I am relieved that organisations such as the Message and passionate individuals like Siphe, Jade, Jess and others are involved.
You can get hold of The Message Trust to find out more about what they do as well as contact the Soft Machine to book them for an upcoming event via the following links:
The Message Trust [firstname.lastname@example.org]