Mon, Dec 20, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Foreign inmates get the greatest holiday gift of all

SHOW OF LOVECut off from loved ones and their homelands, the prisoners know the true meaning of loneliness. But a group of Christians is offering help

By Cody Yiu  /  STAFF REPORTER

A group of Christians prepare products and gifts for about 140 foreign inmates serving sentences in the Taipei Prison in Guishan, Taoyuan County.

PHOTO: CHANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

They may be the most neglected group of people living in Taiwan: foreign inmates serving prison sentences here.

Locked behind bars, these inmates are the loneliest individuals of all. Most of their families are so far away that many never have had any family visits; most of them are allowed to place outgoing phone calls twice a year. Some may be challenged by language barriers.

Fortunately for these inmates, for 11 consecutive years, a group of Christians have played Santa Claus to shower them with gifts and love.

Taipei Prison, which is located in Guishan, Taoyuan County, houses approximately 140 foreign inmates, all of them men, from 18 countries. The majority are from Southeast Asia, while the rest are from Northeast Asia, Western Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Many inmates are imprisoned for drug-related violations.

The days leading up to the Lunar New Year are always the busiest time for the prison, as families and relatives of local inmates flock in to bring food and send their greetings to their loved ones. The usual half-hour visits are cut down to 15 minutes due to the heavy flow of visitors.

However, on the important occasions that matter the most to foreign inmates, no loved ones are around to do the same for them.

Such inmates desperately need contacts with the outside world, and to be given an assurance that someone out there knows about their existence and care about them.

The Lighthouse Ministry, which is run by several English-speaking Christian churches in Taipei, has just been doing that. In a weekly bible study class, counseling sessions and an annual Christmas party, volunteers deliver one clear message to the foreign inmates: that they are loved.

"When I first got involved with this ministry and visiting foreign inmates, many of them burst into tears because no one had ever visited them before," said Gwen "Sunny" Bajoras, a long-term correctional counselor.

Bajoras, an American who has lived in Taiwan for over 20 years, speaks fluent Mandarin.

For the past seven years, Bajoras has been leading a weekly bible study and providing counseling sessions for foreign inmates. Bajoras, a volunteer, is highly regarded by prison officials as well as the inmates themselves.

Numerous times in her ministry, Bajoras has witnessed how the ministry and the Christian faith transform the lives of many foreign inmates.

"There was one inmate from Southeast Asia who had an attitude problem during my first visit, where at one point he was daring me," Bajoras said. "For a while after that I refused to pay him another visit. Then, once he became a Christian, he was a transformed man. He is now back home and thinking seriously about initiating a prison ministry for foreign inmates in his home country."

The Lighthouse Ministry began in 1990, when a pastor of an English-speaking church on Yangmingshan was approached by a foreign family whose son was imprisoned in Taipei Prison.

"This family asked the pastor to help visit their son in prison," said Jon Brantingham, one of the earliest Light House Ministry volunteers. "Later, through the opportunity for ministry presented through the visit to one particular foreign inmate, many others were discovered."

Brantingham is a successful American businessman and a strong Christian who spent more than a decade living in Taiwan. Like Bajoras, Brantingham's fluency in Mandarin always manages to impress the crowd.

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