Broome Prison

Befriending Sinners on My Visit to Broome Prison

5 December 2023

4.4 MINS

Jesus was a friend to sinners. My visit to Broome Prison was a reminder that Jesus has called us to do the same.

The following is an excerpt from Kurt Mahlburg and Warwick Marsh’s latest book, Jesus: The Centre of It All. Buy the book here.

My Visit to Broome Prison

The thick steel door clanged shut behind us. For some reason, gaol doors always clang like that. We were used to the sound. Broome Regional Prison was the sixteenth prison we had been to.

Rest assured, we were not criminals. We were a family band. I played guitar while my wife Alison was on keyboard, and both of us sang. Our sons Nathaniel, Jonathan, Levi and Israel, aged 20 down to 14, played drums, bass, saxophone, didgeridoo and guitar between them. Little Melodie, then eight years old, was a vocalist. She was popular with the crowds, as you might imagine. Ours was an eclectic mix of rock, blues, gospel and reggae, though the most important ingredient was our Christian message of hope and love.

In that era, prisoners tended to favour well-known heavy metal or country tunes, so we were always delighted at how well our own original songs went down. They loved our band, we suspected, because we were a family. Family was in short supply for many of these inmates during their formative years—and something they were certainly deprived of now. Tragically, as I have discovered through the years, prisons are often just big, lonely homes for fatherless men.

Meeting the Prison Heavy

We had been invited to share a meal with the prisoners before our evening concert. So, having set up our equipment ahead of time, we went to find a table to eat at. I scanned the room. A muscular man wearing a white singlet and covered in tattoos caught my eye. He was built like a champion weightlifter and must have stood 6’4. Intuitively, I knew he was the prison ‘heavy’. There is always one man who rules the roost and you don’t want to get on his bad side. I made a mental note to keep my distance and be sure not to sit and eat with him.

Having taken my meal, I pulled up a chair at a spare table and began to eat. I wasn’t alone for long.

“So why does a nice family like you want to come and hang out with scum like us?”

I looked up, still chewing on my food. It was the prison heavy. He had decided to join me for dinner.

His words took my breath away. Not that he had intended as such, but his question was a loaded one, of the same species as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Whichever way I answered it, I would be in hot water. “We love scum like you” was not the message I hoped to convey—and not something I would utter to a man of his build, in any case. “You aren’t scum,” would be an improvement, but I could tell it would ring hollow for this seasoned criminal.

I swallowed my food—hard—and decided to change tack by asking him about his family. He had grown up in a broken home, without a father, and had been abused as a child. His story made me want to cry.

I told him that he was greatly loved by the Father in heaven, and that is why we chose to hang out with him. We are all scum in one way or another, I explained, just as Romans says: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the Father sent His beloved Son Jesus into the world to deliver us from all our sin and wrongdoing.

What my new friend did with this good news, I may never know. But I count it a privilege that I was able to speak into his life.

A Deep and Peculiar Love for Sinners

I have always had a deep and peculiar love for ‘sinners’. It is true that, at first, I avoided Broome Gaol’s kingpin—but that was mostly because of his size and status. I would not have spent years ministering in prisons if I wasn’t attracted to society’s forgotten ones.

People have told me it is a strange impulse to be drawn to misfits and outcasts. Indeed, I have often felt like a man out of place and out of time—something of a misfit myself. Even as a teenager, when I was president of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship, most of my friends were not Christians, and my best friend was an atheist. Right through the 1980s, I regularly hosted a pizza night for people attending our church who didn’t quite fit in. My guests included struggling heroin addicts, musicians, prostitutes, former (and current) criminals and people who struggled with homosexual attraction. One young man who had AIDS lived with our family for a period of time. Though it sounds strange, people who don’t follow Jesus—or are doing a terrible job of trying—can sometimes be more honest than Christians who seem to have it all together.

Eating With Tax Collectors and Sinners

None of this is news to Jesus. He was regularly criticised by the Jewish religious leaders for spending time with rascals and delinquents. Matthew was one of them. Matthew was a Jew, but he had chosen a career as a tax collector, making him an object of scorn among his fellow Jews. They saw him as a weaselly turncoat, willing to extort his own people to appease the despised Roman overlords. In his gospel, Matthew recounts the time Jesus came over to his place for dinner (Matthew 9:10-13):

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus was undaunted by their criticism. If any­th­ing, He wore it as a badge of honour. Several chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus was playing the long game. His plan was to befriend a fallen world full of fallen people and win them back to the Father.

Buy Jesus: The Centre of It All here.


Image via Unsplash.

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  1. H Harrison 5 December 2023 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    A good reminder of how needy we all are. Looking forward to the book and to share it.

  2. Ian Moncrieff 5 December 2023 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    Wonderful story Warwick. What you fed the prison Heavy was the best prison food he could’ve been given. In eternity he’s just might be sitting at the same table as you at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

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