Arthur Bolkas recalls how everything changed for him the day he read a little book in prison.
'Shanghaied' from an open camp back to a maximum-security prison on a drug related charge, it was 1981 and my fifth Christmas since entering prison as a twenty-two year old.
As I robotically paced the prison yard, I suddenly thought, "Have you found happiness in your life; real meaning and purpose?" That night in my tiny cell, I thought about hanging myself. Happiness? I needed to find a reason to live.
Raised on welfare in a Greek migrant family, I was a popular student, successful athlete, school captain and dux of my final year. My future looked promising. However, four years into an Arts/Law degree I grasped for fulfilment in a 'jet-set' lifestyle of drug addiction and armed-robberies. Despair, hatred and pornography further twisted me into someone I now feared.
Then I had another, much stranger thought: why not see what the Bible has to say?
What, the Bible? I resented Christians; they were boring and gullible and screwed me up when I was a kid. I rejected the thought, but it came back to me again and again until I asked myself, 'why am I so afraid of the Bible?' It's the most published and influential book in human history, and I've never read it. What have I got to lose?
I was unable to find a Bible in the library. However, that night, I flushed porn mags down the toilet, determined to find something decent to fill my perverted mind during the seventeen hours locked up each day. The next day whilst sorting through my belongings in the prison's dungeon store-room, I discovered a New Testament.
In the sweltering heat of my cell, I began reading the gospel of Matthew. Six hours later, I sat still in the darkness, as I pondered the last words of Jesus that I had read: "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you" (Luke 11:13). I began to cry uncontrollably from a place deep within that needed purging, and called out to Jesus through my grief for His forgiveness, cleansing and peace.
A grinding key in the cell door awoke me. An officer poked his head in. I blinked and said "Good morning sir," then thought, "What's wrong with me, calling a screw sir!" Yet I felt strangely different.
In the chilly morning air, Mad Mike stood sentinel-like in the middle of the yard wearing just a tee-shirt. I approached him, offering coffee and tobacco. Just then my friend Marwan approached. "Hey Arthur, what are you giving him your stuff for?" Staring at me now, he said "What's happened to you? Your eyes, your face is glowing."
Marwan looked around at others, then intently back at me. "It's just you; only you've got it." He even got me to look into the latrine's dingy stainless steel 'mirror' to see what he could see. Amused at first, I realized that whatever it was I felt, and was somehow reflected in my face, was related to the previous night. Discreetly pulling out the little book, and not quite knowing what to say, I said "Yesterday I was reading this." Marwan looked up from the New Testament, "What? Have you found God?"
"God! No, no," I stammered, not yet appreciating that God had in fact found me.
That was thirty years ago. A lot has happened since including a failed marriage, relapse into drug addiction, gradual healing and restoration through surrender to Jesus Christ, and the blessing of my wife Andie and two sons. Demitri and Daniel
Some years later, I met my wife Andie while presenting an information session on volunteering to visit female prisoners.
Some years ago, we formed a prison ministry called Five8 ('my mate' in rhyming prison slang), that brings together volunteers to visit inmates and support them post release.
The first inmate we visited, Johnny, is now doing tertiary studies, is drug free and has become a Christian. Joanne is two years out, studying, and is not looking back. Frank successfully completed his first ever parole.
Both Andie and I know that when you scratch the surface of someone who is in prison, they are a lot like everyone else but have many more protective layers. Most people are in jail because they sustained broken hearts in their formative years and never fully recovered, often masking their pain with drugs and other addictions. •