The old prison in the South African town of Pietermaritzburg was a notorious place.  Its sturdy 1860’s construction spoke of a grim determination to detain the body and break the will.  During the apartheid years, not just criminals but many activists were imprisoned there, in overcrowded conditions, and many of them were executed.  When it was finally closed in 1991, few would have shed a tear.  It was a symbol of brutality and oppression.

But a group of local Christians had a bold vision – they wanted to turn a place of darkness into a place of hope.  Operating under the name Project Gateway, they took over the abandoned premises and began to restore them.  Using this place of darkness as a base, they began ministering to the needy.  In the two decades they’ve been working, things have gone from strength to strength.  They have set up feeding programmes, an orphanage, a women’s refuge, homeless shelters, sewing clubs, HIV and TB support programmes and many other initiatives which support and empower needy people throughout the region.

Keen not merely to help people in a crisis, but help them out of it, they have set up business empowerment initiatives, skills training workshops, and a primary school.  They also have a school of fashion supported by UK designer Karen Millen!

In an effort to make the project self-funding they are using the central cell block – which is a National Monument because of its architectural significance and its notable former residents – as a tourist attraction, and they even provide accommodation in the cells!  While the rooms are now comfortably decorated, the original doors and high, barred windows remain, and the resident often wonders who else slept in that room in the past, and why.

One former inmate of the solitary confinement block is one of the few men who escaped from the prison and lived to tell the tale.  Curiously, he came back – voluntarily – having become a Christian, and is now employed as the premises manager.  He takes great delight in showing people his former cell, which along with that entire block has been left unrenovated so visitors can see exactly what it would have been like when the cells were in use in earnest.

The dynamism behind this project is truly inspiring.  And, amazingly, the project is not sponsored by a narrow community, but by a very broadly-based coalition of over 20 different churches, from different backgrounds, and representing many different races.  The reconciliation and hope that has taken birth in this previously horribly location is a powerful witness to the transforming power of Jesus at work in South Africa.

You can find out more about Project Gateway by visiting www.projectgateway.co.za