What goes on behind Bars?

I enjoy our Beer Festival. I love the way you end up talking randomly to people of all types, especially on the bar. I enjoy manning the ticket desk, too, provided it’s busy.

Alas, I got the late shift on Friday and eventually became bored. David James and I had enjoyed a good natter, but – what next? I ambled over to a bookshelf and found a book about bars, although of a different sort. It was called, “The Cross Behind Bars”. A few minutes later I was rivetted. David couldn’t get a squeak out of me.

“Oh…er…sorry, I wasn’t quite with it. How many tickets can I sell you?” I mumbled on those rare occasions when a new customer arrived.

The book told the story of a lad called Noel Proctor from the back streets of Belfast, and how he became a prison chaplain, eventually at Strangeways in Manchester. I liked him immediately. No pretence, an honest tale that showed this humble man warts and all, yet how God used him to reach desperate, hopeless, cynical men and to see their lives changed through the Gospel.

Not long into his career, Noel was on the point of giving up altogether. With his wife Norma under treatment for cancer, in an isolated prison on the Isle of Sheppey south of the Thames Estuary, Noel felt spiritually barren. He had nothing left to give. It was then that God provided people to bring His love and grace into their lives. Norma received a promise that she would see their three girls grow to adulthood, and Noel began to see prisoners’ lives remarkably, sometimes inexplicably changing.

There followed five years at Dartmoor prison, a bleak place if ever there was. Sunday morning communion was held at 8 a.m. and prisoners had to miss breakfast to attend. A typical congregation numbered 8. During his five year stay, Noel saw a remarkable change in the whole spiritual climate of the prison, affecting both inmates and warders alike. Norma’s contribution towards Noel’s ministry was crucial, as she opened her heart (and sometimes their home) towards the prisoners’ families.

A second book, “Light through Prison Bars”, is contained within the same volume. This concentrates on Noel’s ministry at Strangeways. When he arrived as Senior Chaplain, an active Christian work was already underway. It was wonderful to read of the way hardened men’s lives changed, as the Holy Spirit used the wisdom, kindness and directness of Noel and his team. The prison had its equivalent of Home Groups. Norma’s friend was suffering from cancer of the face and was dreading a horrible, invasive operation. When Noel asked a group of prisoners to pray for her, the men took her plight to heart and tearfully cried out to God to heal her. And at that exact moment…you’ll have to borrow the book!  

With many wonderful examples of broken lives being mended, Norma and Noel had much to rejoice about. Then, in April 1990, came the Strangeways riots. As the chapel was set on fire and destroyed, Noel felt his entire ministry had gone up in smoke. He had to go through an experience of brokenness and restoration to regain his momentum whilst the prison was completely refurbished.

Norma, meanwhile, had resumed her career as a nurse, and as a devotional speaker. Then, with their three daughters successfully into Higher Education, her cancer returned. She faced this with faith, cheerfulness and with immense courage.   Poor Noel had to support her through months of watching her decline, and was once more left devastated, this time in bereavement.

Yet again, he was restored. Norma had prophesied that God would give him a new ministry, and that’s what happened. He retired from the prison service two years after receiving an M.B.E.

I read some biographies that leave me feeling there’s a class of ‘saint’ that lives in a triumphant world I don’t share. Not this one. Noel’s blood-and-guts story has inspired me to live as a saint in the place God’s put me, but with a greater confidence in a God “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think…” (Ephesians 3:20). It’s back on the shelf in the Sturrock Room if you would like to read it. A bit more dog-eared than before…

      John Hearson 13th November 2019

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