“Do you happen to have Bibles in Georgian? And if so, do you also have Bibles in Albanian and Romanian?”
The Roman Catholic chaplain at Salzburg prison, a Capuchin monk, is delighted to learn that the Austrian Bible Society stocks Bibles in more than 110 languages and that it can provide him with the Scriptures he wanted.
An e-mail arrives from the Lutheran prison chaplain for Lower Austria, a regular visitor to the Bible Society.
“Can I come in next Friday?” he asks. “I want to pick up some Bibles in Albanian, Romanian, Serbian and Croatian.”
Over recent years the Bible Society’s prison ministry has expanded steadily. Now the Society enjoys good relations with all prison chaplains, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, throughout the country, and also with the group from the Salvation Army who work in one prison in Lower Austria.
There are also good relations with prison librarians, who are sometimes surprised that the Bible has been translated in so many different languages and that copies are available for their libraries. Word has now spread through the prisons that the Bible Society offers prisoners a free copy of the Bible in their mother tongue or provides prison ministries who have a small budget with discounted copies.
The Bible Society regularly receives letters from individual prisoners, too. Some send thanks for the Bible they have received through their chaplains, and others ask questions about the Bible or asking for more reading material. But most just write to ask for a personal copy of the Bible.
In the Bible Society office, in the heart of Vienna, there are already several files of letters like this – of greetings cards (especially at Christmas time), testimonies and general correspondence.
Jutta Henner, the Bible Society’s General Secretary, took the opportunity to visit one of Austria’s largest prisons last year when it held a Lutheran service.
“I really see the blessings of this ministry of ours,” she says. “People in prison really read the Bible and they read their life in the Bible. The Word of God has a lasting impact on their lives, especially with those who are serving long sentences. I’ve seldom seen people so hungry for a word of hope and meaning.”
She treasures the letters and testimonies for the encouragement they give to the Bible Society. Her favourite testimony came from a middle-aged prisoner.
‘I started to believe’
“I am almost half a century old,” he wrote, “but just a few years ago I started to believe in him who was crucified for me and for all other sinners almost 2,000 years ago…The Bible – a book that is not just a book, but life itself – has changed my life. It has led me to the path I was seeking for such a long time… I thank you so much for your support, but I ask you this: please continue to help us with prayer and with many, many Bibles, so that, for many of us, our way may not be in vain, but we may follow His way.”
Another prisoner, originally from Nigeria, wrote from Upper Austria thanking Dr Henner for his English Bible.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank you for making the Bible available to me,” he wrote. “I am a Christian but in the past I never took the time to read the Bible. Now I have taken the opportunity… I have found that most of the experiences in my life, both past and present, are mirrored somewhere in the Bible. By going through it, I have found the answers to almost all my questions. And I thank God for helping me always to find the right chapter there.”
Handwritten pages of Scripture
In autumn 2008 another prisoner, whose mother tongue was German, sent the Bible Society several letters each containing piles of handwritten pages of “Scripture passages that helped me in my particular situation” – written over the years in prison.
He is, in fact, an active partner of the Bible Society, passing on requests for Bibles and Bible-reading guides, or indicating the need for audio Scriptures – an area that the Austrian Bible Society will be focusing on this year.
In December, particularly, the Austrian Bible Society distributed Bibles to many prisoners, together with Bible-reading guides for 2009. And to judge from the files of prison letters, these Scriptures touch the hearts of ‘people under pressure’.