by Rosie Schefe

It’s a bit scary the first time. Walking in, knowing nobody and needing to explain you are a chaplain.

And then there’s the atmosphere. High walls, fences and barbed wire. Uniforms, handcuffs, keys and following directions as a guest of ‘the system’. It’s enough to make anyone nervous about visiting a person in prison.

Pastor Neil Hampel knows this experience, knows it well. He began ministry as a prison chaplain after 40 years in parish ministry, continuing as a volunteer for another eight years after his retirement in 2002. He estimates that from 1998 to 2010 he spent ten years as a voluntary prison chaplain, taking time out occasionally to serve parishes in a locum capacity.

As a chaplain I was able to be a servant of Christ and to minister in his name. I believe; so I live and preach.’

He’d had some chaplaincy experience previously, working with small industries or government bodies, but his prisonvisiting experience was limited. He was ministering in Port Augusta, South Australia, when the call went out for people to serve as chaplains in the prison.

‘The coordinating chaplain, a kindred spirit from the Uniting Church, gave me some basic information and told me that my role was to get to know the prisoners and to share the gospel’, Neil says. And that is what he did, once every week for the next four years.

Neil’s first visit took him straight to the prison’s secure unit (Port Augusta houses high-, medium- and low-security prisoners). Effectively, his job was to cold-call, to identify himself as a member of the chaplaincy team and to build a relationship—through the trapdoor in the cell door.

Neil says, ‘It didn’t matter to me why they were there. Each one is a son of Adam. All I could do was to befriend them in the name of Jesus.

‘Some were willing to talk, some weren’t. Prisoners soon assess whether you are genuine or not. You have to be consistent, be reliable and dependable. You have to walk the talk and talk the walk’, he says.

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