‘With God in prison there is no prison’
A former prisoner talks about conversion in prisons
Borys Montren is now 45. He has been a free man for half a year – most of his life he spent in prison:
“In my life I did nothing. I wanted to have a family – a wife, children – but I also wanted to have money. And to have it, I stole, because I did not like to work. And so eight times in my life I was in prison with breaks for two, three months, six months; the longest I was free was nine months. If we count it all, I spent 28 years in prison. Now I have in a way sobered up. I now I tell everyone: “All I stole during my life is a barbed wire from head to toe. I do not want someone to repeat my mistakes.”
Mr. Borys, who says it was in prison where he was converted, is now a parishioner of a Protestant church. The man calls himself a living testimony, occasionally he goes to the prison to tell his story to those who still are in prison. He clearly separates his life into two periods: the one without God and the one with God. His testimony begins with who he was: “We had a family: a mother, a father, six brothers. And we lived in the middle, not poor, not rich. When I was 11, my dad died. My mother remained alone, and there were a lot of us children. And she probably had a weak character, for she began to drink. No one looked after us, and we did what we wanted. And at 14 I already had a juvenile record – I stole some money and rolls from a store. And since then I have been associated with crime. I was first imprisoned at 15 for a three-year term. And though there were educators, no one educates. And no man can be taught something until he has done it himself. In prison I had even more negative experiences. And then a few months freedom, and again a crime… And so it was constantly. And I sat in prison just about everywhere: in Luhansk, Donetsk, Lviv... From age 15 to 40 I did not understand life at all... Until I met God.”
One of his was also imprisoned, “However, it’s already been eight years since he converted, and now he has a wife and two children,” says Mr. Borys.
“But what I did with my life, I did not understand by the example of my brother, but when God himself showed me that He is alive. I did not know then that my brother, with his friends, was praying all the time that God will deliver me from this bondage. And there was this situation in prison when I was two months in isolation, was closed up alone in the cell. Everyone was against me, I did not know whom to contact. Of course, I could find a way out – hurt someone, kill someone, but I did not have such bad thoughts. And perhaps when you are locked up alone it is easy to die morally, to go crazy, but I endured. I just dropped to my knees, even though I still did not know the living God, but those two months I was on my knees crying, praying to God, “Lord, help me!” I no longer had anyone to trust, no one to ask for help. And I saw God's miracle, because everything changed in my favor – I was taken from that cell.”
Then Mr. Borys was invited to a prayer meeting. Among the inmates who attended prayers, many were baptized in prison. And those who were freed came to testify.
“The first time I went to the meeting was on a Sunday,” says Borys Montren. “And I thought, today I will quit smoking, because I was addicted to cigarettes. And a week later I was repenting for my life. And so it happened. The next Sunday I went to church. A brother who had already been released, came to testify: ‘Do not make the mistakes that I made. Because after I repented and was released from prison, I was imprisoned for a second time.’ And I heard these words and repented. I remember that day well. It was October 22, 2006. I then asked God for forgiveness for my sins. And I began to see God’s work in my life. Since then I spent another five years in prison. When I was in prison earlier, it was with its difficulties. But during those five years I spent in prison after I met with the living God, I never felt that I was in the zone. I told many people about this change, but few believed me. Because to God I am a good man, an honest man, and for other prisoners I remained who I was before, they continued to judge me because they knew about my past. But I really did become different. I no longer had to fool anyone, beat anyone to get something to eat, drink. God was watching over me, God blessed me, I received packages from my brother and I was not lacking anything. I saw in this God’s love, for God loves believers. And I no longer had anything to prove to anyone, but simply thought that I will believe, will endure, will search, will be courteous to God and God will help me throughout.
Once I repented, I constantly read the Bible in prison. Everyone laughed at me. Day and night I read the Scriptures. At first I did not understand anything, but I was curious. And I really began to see, when God showed me that wisdom is in fact when I am smaller. Because I always wanted to rise, to glorify myself. And I read the Word of God and felt spiritual relief, felt how God was freeing me. And, you know, freedom without God can be a prison, and with God in prison there is no prison. And I understood this.”
Mr. Borys has been free for already half a year. He says the last time he was on Rynok Square was during the Soviet era. Now, he says, he doesn’t recognize the city, says he feels as if he were abroad. The man says that now he lives, rejoices, enjoys life, because all the sadness was left behind bars. And once, when he was first released, he could not go safely down the street: “When I walked in the city, if someone bothered me, I would beat them up, I thought I was strong, a hero, but I deceived myself, for it was stupidity.
“Now, having met the Light, I want peace in life. Earlier I used to constantly deceive the police, thinking they spoiled my life. But now I forgive everyone for everything. Now I look forward to eternal life, because there will be joy, peace, calmness. I currently live under God's grace. It’s a little hard, but it’s alright, God gives everything. There are several brothers through whom he helps me. Previously, I would not have been able to live if I had no money. Now, thank God, I am alive, dressed, and fed, and a place to sleep, although I do not have anything. I live in Lviv in a house of some relative’s of mine. I work a little here and there. So for example, yesterday I painted a neighbor’s lattice and she paid me 200 hryvnias. I help my brother with some renovation. Now there will be some construction at the church, I will work there, and live there for a while.
“I have achieved nothing in life. Now my heart aches when I see how young people go astray. I want to warn others of the mistakes I made, because they will regret it their entire lives. I am 45 and always repeat that I have amounted to nothing. I really want to have a family and pray that God will give me a home and a wife. And I am thankful that I am alive and well, because in prison I could have died, gone mad. But I think there is a reason I survived, and if even just one soul is saved because of my testimony, it will be my ministry on earth.”
Cases of conversion among inmates are not very common, says Fr. Stanislav Nutskovskyi, a priest in St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, who celebrates the Liturgy in Prison No. 30 in Lviv.
“Not all prisoners convert right away. It depends on each person. In the prison where we serve, the inmates have been there more than once; this is the next error in their lives, after the first time they were not converted. Spending 7, 14, 20 years in prison did not help them, it didn’t change anything. Only after the second time do realize that something must be done with their life. Very often people convert when they hit rock bottom, and when they realize they have reached this point and that they have nothing to lose, because everything is already lost, they begin to seek God, God, who they previously knew. Most prisoners with Christian roots were baptized at a young age, maybe even went to church, but at some point they got lost. Given the percentage, I think that a minority of prisoners convert. From the 1,200 people who are serving time in the No. 30, 200-250 people show their faith, attend Mass.”
Five years ago Roman Catholic priests began to organize thematic meetings for all the faithful in prison. A religious group in No. 30 has been around for 15 years. First there were Protestant ministers, and then the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches introduced their Liturgies to the prisons.
“Initially, we the Roman Catholic Church began to hold meetings for all people, regardless of their denomination,” says Father Stanislaw. “Even regardless of whether these people were believers. It is important that they go and just listen and communicate. We found that many are of the people who want to practice Christianity are Catholics. And a year ago they started to ask us to: ‘And when will the Liturgy be?’ Originally it was a Catholic, and then another prisoner, also a Roman Catholic, who transferred to the prison from Rivne. He also asked, ‘And will we have a Liturgy? Because we had one in Rivne.’ And we understood that God has probably given us a time when we can go to prison with our Liturgy, with the Sacraments.”
So already for six months a Mass has been celebrated every Saturday in the prison. Fifteen people attend the Liturgy, 10 of whom attend services regularly:
“Although we haven’t been celebrating the Liturgy for such a long time here, these people have changed, they have seen a change of heart, they have a different consciousness, they are seeking God and meeting Him as a person who is alive and present here and now. And the possibility of meeting with the living Jesus in Communion, full participation in the Liturgy, also changes the lifestyle of the prisoners, for the Liturgy motivates them to convert. And they take place weekly: every week I am at the Liturgy, but every week I am also in the community. And every week the community sees me and forms me, and the community is the birthplace of holy people, as well as place where all of our all weaknesses are manifested because others see them and we see the weaknesses of others. And it also cleanses, for prisoners watch out for one another. Because they are reminded who they are, that they are participating in the Liturgy and to what they aspire.”
Most of those who attend prayer have already felt the presence of God in their lives before they came to the service, says the priest.
“They come when they have found God again, in the world of their crimes, their mistakes. And very often among the topics that we discuss in the catechism is God who saves, who rescues, who is present, who accepts. We often speak about this acceptance because they themselves don’t accept themselves, because these are not the normal circumstances of life – to be in prison.
Prisoners say that their meeting with God most often occurs because they met with a believer who invited them to a prayer, who said: “Today we have a Liturgy, I invite you to come, to be with us, you don’t have to believe, you don’t have to pray, just be there.” And after these words people feel welcome, feel good. And then later these people often wonder: “Where does all this good come from? Why are you so kind to me? You don’t even know me!” And then the answer is simple: the prisoner who invited the person to the prayer takes the Bible from his pocket and says: “Here! Take it and read!” And very often people who are in prison, just read, understand or don’t understand, but read, look for their lives in the Bible. Maybe this is why the Bible is so thick [laughs], everyone’s history is recorded in there, try to find yourself! And when these people find it, it is the beginning of the conversion, they start to pray these words, ask, seek. And most of the people we meet in prison are people who have converted because they believed in God in His Word, found the value of the Word. They converted because someone once slipped a Bible into their hands and said: “Here, read!” Nobody explained anything; this person just sat and read, and asked why everything is this way, but read. Through reading appeared faith, appeared peace, and maybe joy, rest, and then later some understanding, and so they became believers. And a change is visible in them. In prison, like in a small country with its own rights and laws, the prisoners divide themselves into castes. There are lower ones that serve others, clean, carry out all sorts of dirty work. The highest one is called ‘blatnoy’; these people don’t work, someone from the outside supports them, so they cope well in prison. These are people who do not communicate with the lower caste. And when prisoners convert, it destroys the castes. They meet in one church, at one Liturgy, and they welcome each other and call each other brothers. It is apparent that these are different people from different castes, and this means they demean themselves, but they do it and there is love, there is respect.”
Now the Liturgy for the Roman Catholic community in Prison No. 30 is celebrated in the administration building, on the territory of the prison administration: “And not all love the administration, not everyone loves power. If people don’t come to the Liturgy, to meet with us, it is not because they do not want us to meet, not because they don’t like us, because they don’t believe, but because there is a grudge against the administration and to everything related to it. There are people who never go there because they have told themselves ‘I will never set a foot in the administration building,’ even if they are sick, then do not go there. And according to prisoners who come to us, we learned that 100-150 people would like to attend our Liturgy. And often the main reason they do not come is the lack of a space where they won’t be checked, where they won’t feel humiliated, controlled, where they can go freely and confess their faith. And we, together with the prisoners, asked the leadership of the prison to establish a chapel on neutral territory, not on the side of the prisoners, and also nowhere associated with the administration. Thus the church, since it belongs neither to the state nor to the people nor to priests, is for everyone and provides a place for people to meet where everyone is accepted. The place must not be restricted, closed, bear hostility. We the Franciscan monks of the St. Anthony Church take this matter into our hands. First we need to get permission from the administration to establish such a chapel, and then seek funding.”
The priest says they have already looked for such a place on the prison territory where a chapel can be erected. Here every believer, regardless of his denomination, will be able to come and pray at any time.
“A maximum of 30-35 people come to the administration building for thematic meetings. And when we hold meetings in another place on holidays such as Christmas or Easter, 250-300 people come to us, or more. When we as believers go to the prison we want as many people to be able to meet with God, with the living Jesus at the Liturgy, at catechism.”
Fr. Stanislav says that outside the prison everyone has to build a new life, and that depends on each person what it will be like: “Faith, meeting with God, always transforms. But the question is how much of this faith will stay in us. God is such that he does not enslave us. I want, I believe. These people who convert in prison, they begin to live by the faith, but no one can guarantee how they will be after they are freed, because this is new lifestyle, new people, new problems, and will they want to meet again with God? Because in prison they meet Him because they are looking for freedom, and freedom from sin, from what oppresses them, seeking repentance, when they got it all, they might no longer need God, because they are free. Therefore, very often after a short period of time these people return to prison. But there are those who have passed the process of meeting with God well, having converted in prison, they are already different, it is easier to communicate with them, they are polite, humane, restrain their emotions. In prison they build their relationships with loved ones, often they have lost relationships, contacts, but start to looking for their relatives, send letters, communicate, meet, and when they return home, their close ones are waiting. These people have a good foundation, can further develop, they are loved, they are understood, they are joined in prayer. Many of them after being released from prison begin to go to church, become active in the church, of Protestant believers often former prisoners become pastors in their churches. By their example these people teach others, especially young people, not to repeat their mistakes.”
And in their testimonies about the way of their sins, their mistakes and their conversions, these people say that to meet God it is not necessary to hit rock bottom. Everyone has the opportunity to pave a completely different way to God.