by Mary Coffey AMMM Ireland 05.04.2023
Redemption is a word central to Holy Week and I invite you to pause and to come with me on a journey that I made while on holiday in Uganda many years ago, a journey into a very personal understanding of redemption. While I was staying for a few days with the MMM community in Masaka , Sr Helen Ahearn shared with me about her prison ministry. She spoke of the appalling conditions in the prison, the humiliations and indignities, and the diseases suffered by the prisoners.
The following day I went out with the mobile Palliative Care Team and our first stop was to a small rural prison. The prisoner, Joshua, was brought outside. His crime – he had stolen a hen. There was no money to bribe the judge. He was skin and bone and looked very ill. He squatted on his hunkers as prison regulations did not allow the prisoners any furniture. The two nurses and a female warden sat on a bench. I stood. When asked to do so the warden relented and brought a stool for Joshua. She then left and I took her place on the bench. Joshua was dying of AIDS, he had been beaten and was in pain.
I felt an urge to reach out and touch him and I did so in a doctorly way. I pulled down his lower eyelid as if to see if he were anaemic. As I did so a thought crossed my mind and I asked myself; ‘What would happen if I said that I wanted to take that man’s place?’ That was never going to happen but I was troubled for the rest of the day and my imagination took me on a journey.
My first thought was that the prison authorities wouldn’t know what to do with me, a privileged, white Westerner, but there were to be no special privileges. No bed, of course, nor a blanket. Overcrowding. Sleeping on bare concrete. Beatings. Rape. HIV. Hepatitis. Inedible food and contaminated water. Helen had told me the evening before about the awful skin infestations with which the prisoners suffered and that was what most occupied my imagination, the itch from which there would be no relief.
It was a while before my imagination shifted to Joshua, whose family were happily bringing him home. He would be with his loved ones who would take care of him out of their meagre resources. They would rejoice in his home-coming.
And then the story took on a whole different meaning and it was as if it were Good Friday and I was in the presence of Him who had taken my place, of Him who had come to carry the burden of my sin so that I could be set free. I was quite shaken by the starkness and the immediacy of the image. Joshua always accompanies me through Holy Week.