Joybelle, 67, Cape Town, South Africa
[as told to Then God Moved editor Adira Polite]
It all started with the Mandrax, dagga (marijuana), and alcohol. I was in my early thirties. Soon after I started abusing, I started missing my work shifts. You can’t hold down a job if you don’t show up, so I started jumping from job to job. Eventually, I met a group of shoplifters. That was that. We’d target a neighborhood, lift items, sell them, then divide the earnings. The work was simple. Better yet, it let me continue to live my life of party.
Then, I got caught. I was 32 when I first went to prison and I went many times after that. It got so bad that my own daughter once turned me in. My sentences ranged from a couple of months to six years.
I wasn’t thinking about God during the early years. Honestly, I wanted nothing to do with Him. I grew up around Christians and I wasn’t a fan. They preached about the God of wrath, but kept quiet about the God of love. When I stopped going to church and fell into trouble, they judged and abandoned me. I thought God didn’t want me — why would I seek Him? And on top of all of that, I didn’t like the rules of the local church. No lipstick, no pierced ears, no haircuts. I’m stylish. That didn’t work for me!
I didn’t want to go to church in prison, but inmates had no choice under apartheid. So I went, but I used it as an opportunity to conduct business. Smuggle things in, smuggle things out, that sort of thing. I was still very much dedicated to crime. And the further I went into crime, the further I drifted from God.
It wasn’t until my longest sentence, my last sentence, that things started to change. I was in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, the same prison where Nelson Mandela once served. Soon after I arrived, another inmate started inviting me to Bible study. She kept asking and kept asking and eventually I said “You know what? To get this woman off my back, let me go to this Bible study.”
When I got there, I saw that there was something in the Christian volunteers. There was something about them that drew me in. So I went back just to see them. And then I went back again and again and again.
Because I wanted that something that they had, I eventually joined their theological class. Without warning, my eyes were opened. Suddenly, I understood that God was a God of love. I also realized that He wanted me and that, because of the Cross, He could and would forgive me.
If someone had told me that I’d end up giving my life to Jesus, I would’ve laughed and walked away. But, it happened, Praise God! And from that day forward, my life was never the same. I lost all desire for my old lifestyle. My eyes were opened to the pain that I’d caused others and I wanted no part in it. I wanted a different life — and God gave it to me. I left prison in 2002, never to return.
Now, I lead Bible studies and restorative justice programs in the same prisons that once held me. I relate to the inmates. I speak their language, so they trust me. They open up to me. Because of that, I can help them reach breakthroughs. Many of them think that they’re a lost cause, but I try my best to help them understand that there’s nothing that God cannot change. There are no lost causes with God. He’s not a quitter. I’m always telling them, “There’s nothing you can do that will make God turn His back on you.”
So many of these people are being harmed by bad teaching. Many ministers preach salvation, but few preach healing. They don’t talk about human brokenness. So when people slip and fall into sin, churches turn on them. Instead of pulling them out of their trouble, they say “I knew you wouldn’t make it.” Churches are ignoring the reality of sin. They must deal with brokenness. They must offer counseling.
The people behind bars are in dark places, but I have hope for them. I watched God change my life and I know He’ll do it for them, too. I went from embracing a life of crime and drugs to leading people out of it. Everything is different now. I’m close to my family. Against all odds, I’ve lived to know my seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. God did that. And funny enough, the daughter who once turned me over to the cops is the person who drives me to church every Sunday.
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