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Supporting prisoners spiritually for 25 years


May 28 2009

Yusuf Mawarjoko, a Catholic prison officer, has been organizing spiritual activities for Christian prisoners for more than 25 years.

Mawarjoko started work in the high-security Cipinang Penitentiary in 1976 as an administrative staffer, and was assigned to his present role by the institution´s head in 1983. He said he has come to see it as his greater Catholic calling, helping about 200 Catholic and Protestant prisoners cope with their time in prison, grow in faith and reform themselves.


Yusuf Mawarjoko

Working alongside priests serving in the East Jakarta deanery, the 54-year-old has helped to build up the prison´s Christian spiritual activities from one or two monthly meetings to almost daily prayer meetings and Masses. He even helps to oversee such activities on his days off.

UCA News interviewed Mawarjoko recently on his service:

UCA NEWS: What motivates you to provide this service?

YUSUF MAWARJOKO: In the beginning, I was not interested and I did not feel prepared, since my faith knowledge was so limited. But as time went by, I realized it is also my calling, as a Catholic, to pay attention to the prisoners´ spiritual life. I believe that had their lives been more spiritually grounded previously, they would not have ended up in prison.

I still rely on God to help me perform my duties as well as I can, but this task has also made me happy, since I see it as a way to serve God and others. It is also a chance for me to learn and know more about spirituality.

Did you start these services on your own initiative?

No. I was assigned by the Head of Cipinang Penitentiary to give spiritual support accompaniment to Christian prisoners in 1983. This service had been organized already before I undertook it, however activities were held once or twice a month. We were only provided a small chapel with an altar and chairs, so I asked all the various Churches that serve the prison to bring musical instruments and liturgical supplies for Mass or prayer meetings.

We also have received a good deal of support from the institution, which encourages our prisoners to build up their spirituality.

Now we hold religious activities every morning and afternoon from Monday to Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays we also organize activities, and I accompany our Christian prisoners to make sure these go well.

What kind of spiritual service do you provide for the prisoners?

I only help Churches involved in the prison ministry to organize Masses and prayer meetings. But I also accompany Catholic prisoners in praying the rosary, and faith and Bible sharing sessions every Friday morning. I also give them a chance to lead these activities.

There are also Bible courses for Protestant prisoners on Mondays and Fridays, which pastors of the Protestant Church in West Indonesia and Bethany Church lead. Some Catholic prisoners also join in. In addition, baptism preparation classes are held twice a year.

Here, both Catholic and Protestant prisoners celebrate Mass and prayer meetings together, though we can only offer Holy Communion to the Catholics.

I help the Catholic prisoners follow the Church calendar. For example, I invite them to organize the Way of the Cross and Bible reading sessions during Lent, and rosary prayers in May and October. But at no point do I force them to take part. I simply invite them, and most attend quite diligently.

Lastly, Jakarta archdiocese and Cipinang Penitentiary are jointly building a library beside the chapel, and this will be finished in July. The Catholic Church has donated more than 100 books on religion, general knowledge, vocational skills, etc., and the 30-square-meter library will also be used as a counseling room.

Does your service here disrupt your family life?

At first, the service did disrupt my family life, and even my wife had her doubts, since I serve the prisoners every day. But now my wife and two sons support me because they recognize that it is a form of service to the Church.

How do the prisoners respond to your efforts?

About 200 Christian prisoners attend Masses or prayer meetings, and they do seem to be happy with this. I am always asked whether there will be any activities the next day, which suggests to me that these have become important to them.

Do you find any obstacles in your work?

Yes. First, the primary motivation of some prisoners to join the spiritual activities is sometimes to get extra food. Second, though we welcome many Churches here who are willing to provide spiritual guidance, we cannot always give them the time they need for this. And third, we simply lack the facilities and human resources to help the prisoners as much as we would like.

How does your service benefit the prisoners?

Spiritual activities can reduce the prisoners´ boredom and loneliness, and alleviate their suffering from any trauma they may have experienced. The prisoners sing songs and listen to the Word of God, but we also give them an opportunity to play musical instruments during Masses or prayer meetings.

We hope that by listening to the Word of God every day, the prisoners may reflect on their past deeds and finally realize that what they did was sinful.

How has the Church supported your ministry?

The Church´s support is great. And not only spiritual, but also material -- supplying Bibles, food and musical instruments. Priests serving the East Jakarta deanery visit this prison to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.

The recent visit of Jesuit Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Jakarta also gave our prisoners, and me, great moral support. (Editor´s note: Cardinal Darmaatmadja and several priests visited Christian prisoners and celebrated Mass with them on April 14, two days after Easter Sunday.)

Do the daily spiritual activities disrupt other prison activities?

We always hold our spiritual activities without disturbing other activities, and we ask our prayer groups to respect all other religions. The prisoners are also encouraged to respect other religious followers when they are praying.

This prison is the only one that organizes spiritual activities on a daily basis.

What are your hopes for the prisoners?

I hope the Church will continue its ministry in this penitentiary as the ministry helps the prisoners change their behavior. And hopefully, when they are free they will have a strong faith and live good lives in society.