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Sports ministry softens convicts


Sinethemba Gcwabe (left) and Pastor Juju Tabata

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September 17, 2007
- Dan Nighswander

CAPE TOWN, South AfricaSinethemba Gcwabe spent four years of his young life as a prisoner at Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town, home to some of South Africa's most dangerous criminals and roughest gangsters. During the apartheid era Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners spent time here.

Although designed with a capacity of just over 4000, the current inmate population is over 7000. Many who serve their sentence at Pollsmoor come out hardened in their life of crime. Some families of prisoners cut off contact with their relatives during their imprisonment. Powerful and violent gangs replace family contacts. Illicit drug use is common.

But Sinethemba’s story has taken a different path. During his last year in prison he applied to be accepted in the prison ministry program of Ambassadors in Sport, a Christian sports ministry that originated in England in 1990 and now works in at least twelve countries around the world. At Pollsmoor, Ambassadors works through a program called Hope Academy which has been granted some space. The prisoners they work with are all under twenty-one; some are only fifteen years old.

The slogan of the African program of Ambassadors in Sports is “Bringing Hope Through Soccer.” That’s what they did for Sinethemba. With nothing to do and little to look forward to, he wanted a chance to play soccer. When he applied he knew that Ambassadors is a Christian organization and that the young men in the program spend a significant amount of time each day doing Bible study, but it was the daily soccer practice and games that attracted him.

One of the staff that Sinethemba met was Sivuyile (Juju) Tabata, an associate pastor from Way of Life Church in Khayelitsha who works part-time for Ambassadors in Sports. Most of the Ambassadors staff come from other countries to serve for a year or two in South Africa, but Pastor Juju understands where the prisoners are coming from. He lives in the township where their families live. He understands their culture, their life experience and he speaks Xhosa. Sinethemba says "coaches teach us many things. They take us as family, we can share personal stuff with them and they advise us." Nobody does that better than Pastor Juju.

Some of the young men that Pastor Juju works with have never been to school. They have few skills and they come from dysfunctional families. It takes time to win their trust, but in prison there is time.

Pastor Juju and the other staff work with the prisoners through structured Bible study and discussion times. They sing together in worship and for the joy of singing. One of the older inmates has developed a choir that sings songs that he has written about his life and his faith. The Ambassadors provide a safe place for the prisoners to talk and they celebrate holidays as a “family” together.

But the main attraction for prisoners like Sinethemba is still the soccer. While other prisoners at Pollsmoor do very little with their recreation time, those in the Hope Academy program get lots of time to practice their skills, develop leadership and team-work, and compete with each other in this very popular sport. In South Africa, soccer is a national pastime played in every open space and much discussed, especially in anticipation of the Soccer World Cup coming to South Africa in 2010. Pastor Juju says that teaching values, attitudes and skills in life and in soccer are closely related, and “Whatever we teach we want to see implemented on the field.”

Christopher Malchas has worked for many years as the Unit Manager in section B5, which includes the Hope Ministries cell. He is a Christian who calls his work "stewardship of people in God's image."

"Whatever [the prisoners] have done, they have done and it’s wrong, but we love them as people," he says. Prisons are typically dehumanizing institutions, but he wants the area under his responsibility to be humane. Through the work of Ambassadors he has seen the prisoners learn to treat each other as persons. Malchas is particularly pleased to have Pastor Juju bring his understanding of Xhosa culture and language and his Christian compassion to this setting "where very few people want to be."

Malchas affirms two of the activities of the Ambassadors program: music and sports. Both activities teach teamwork, and as the young prisoners play soccer and sing together, he says, “‘I’ become ‘us.’”

“Now,” Sinethemba says, “I play soccer to represent Jesus.” Through the ministry of Ambassadors he has “developed a heart to share with other guys,” which is a new development in his attitude. Besides developing his soccer skills he has learned how to coach, and when he was made captain of the team he learned how to take leadership responsibility. He says that through sport he learned to “think outside the box.” He understands that he too is an ambassador for Jesus.

Now that he is out of prison Sinethemba finds it hard to live out the values and beliefs that he gained from Ambassadors in Sport. But Pastor Juju continues to mentor Sinethemba and he has become involved in Way of Life Church. Pastor Juju’s dream is to develop a Sports Academy for former prisoners and young people who are at risk of criminal activity. Way of Life Church and its Pastor, Xola Skosana, dream of having a facility where a Sports Academy could become a part of their ministry. Mission workers from Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network are working with Way of Life Church to bring these dreams to reality.

Dan Nighswander and Yvonne Snider-Nighswander are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. They recently spent four weeks helping the Way of Life congregation develop administrative systems and set up a records management process.