May Mackey, QSM: “They’re people to us. . . We never ask why they’re inside.”

May Mackey was 93 when she retired from prison ministry. Last week, at 98, she was honoured for that work, writes Lloyd Ashton.

About 150 well-wishers jammed into an Auckland rest home on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate May Mackey, a 98-year-old described as “an icon of prison ministry” in New Zealand.

They did so following May’s investiture, earlier in the day, with the Queen’s Service Medal. As the Governor General Patsy Reddy put it, May had for decades provided “compassion and aroha and prayer support without judgment” to prisoners.

May is Pākehā, and was born in Dunedin.

She became a Christian as a teenager, and in her mid-20s, she headed to Auckland’s Bible Training Institute (the forerunner of today’s Laidlaw College) to train to become an overseas missionary.

While there, though, her story took an unexpected turn. She became mates with Emma Kake (Ngāpuhi) who was the first Māori woman to attend BTI. The Kake whānau took May under their wing, and May decided her life’s work would not be in China or Bolivia or Pakistan or wherever — but in Aotearoa, among Māori.

So that’s how, in 1948, May came to be Matron of the Shelly Beach Māori Girls’ Hostel in Ponsonby, looking after young wāhine sent to the big smoke to learn a trade.

Sometimes those teenage girls would be inclined to slip the leash and head out to parties — and May would find herself walking the streets of Freemans Bay and Ponsonby at night, looking to bring her girls back home.

Inspector Wally Chalmers of Auckland Central warned May of the dangers of her solo wanderings.

Turns out that Wally was solo, too — and, in 1960, May and Wally married, and adopted a couple of kids.

But inside three years tragedy struck.

Wally was killed in the line of duty, gunned down by a psychopath in an incident that led to the formation of the police armed offenders’ squad.

In 1968, May married Dave Mackey. Dave was an ex-United Māori Missions hostel boy who was farming down Mangakino way, and whose first wife had died.

May and Dave were each grieving, each struggling to raise young kids, they’d been friends for years — so getting married was a no-brainer.

Not long after they’d tied the knot, May and Dave went back into looking after young Māori men in Auckland trade training hostels.

In 1982, they signed on with Corrections to become prison visitors, and three years later, they made contact with Nehe Dewes.

Nehe is a Presbyterian Minister from the Coast who’d been the chaplain at Waikeria prison. In 1985, he’d been asked to move to “The Rock”, to Mt Eden jail, to help sort out some raruraru there.

At Nehe’s induction, Dave Mackey had slipped his card into Nehe’s lapel pocket: “If you ever need a hand,” Dave had said, “just give us a call.”

The following day, Nehe turned up to the prison chapel to take his first Sunday service.

At Waikeria, he’d been used to having a congregation of around 100. But on that first Sunday at Mt Eden — there he stood in the chapel, with not another soul to support him.

Nehe says that on that first Sunday in Mt Eden he was stricken with loneliness, and “having a tangitangi”.

So he returned to his office, reached into his lapel pocket, dialled Dave’s number — and within the hour Dave, May, and a few of their friends, were sitting with him in Mt Eden.

So began the transformation of prison ministry at Mt Eden.

Dave Mackey died in 2005. He dropped dead in a police station — he was at the prison mahi to the very end.

But May kept her hand to the plough, visiting both Mt Eden and Paremoremo on an almost daily basis until, at 93, she knew she had to call time on that work.

May has never had the least interest in fuss. Over the years, she had batted away numerous requests for interviews — and only consented to her name being put forward for the QSM because of the pleas of her family and friends.

She explained her thinking to Taonga in 2013:

“The significance of a person,” she says, “is not in themselves.

“It’s in whom they represent.”

Some who’d lived through the kind of tragedy May had known would’ve found it impossible to mix with convicted crims. Murderers among them.

But it was never an issue for her, she said, to go into the prisons.

“No hurdle,” she said. “None. At. All.

“It was just the most natural thing.

“I didn’t have to grow into it.

“I’ve always had a yen for the underdog. Always. It was part of me.”

In all her 30-plus years in prison ministry, she says she never felt intimidated, either.

“Never even had a harsh word. No feeling of fear, at any stage.”

Part of the reason for that, maybe, is the way she and her ministry friends viewed the men inside.

“They’re people to us,” she said.

We see them as people.

“In fact we’re so removed … that we never ask why they’re inside.”

Several of the speakers at last week’s hui drew attention to what they saw as the secret of May’s success.

It was the aroha that she manifested, they said.

Her knack for engaging with the men inside, without so much as a whiff of judgment.

May spoke to Taonga about that in 2013, too.

“We don’t go in to talk religion.

“Not. At. All.

“We don’t need to.

“We go in as friends.

“We know how to feel our way — to present what we represent.

“And they know … if they’ve got a need, they seek you out.”

So if it’s not hard-sell religion, what motivated May?


“The message of redemption, which changed me, motivates me.

“With due respect to all the help the men get from psychologists, from programmes, from help from outside, from all these paid people … we know our message of redemption is the absolute. It’s the only answer.”

Part of the reason for May’s rapport with the men is that she knows the world from which so many have come.

“You just ask: ‘So where do you come from?’

“And when they tell you, you say: ‘Ohh… I know your relations.’ And you just mention some names …

“This is the Māori world, so it’s all whānau stuff. It’s all family stuff.”

Nehe Dewes — who served in Mt Eden for 12 years before moving to Wellington to become the country’s senior prison chaplain — is now 80, and living back in Tikitiki with his wife Lucy.

But wild horses wouldn’t have kept them away from May’s celebration. Nehe was the one who told those gathered that May is “an icon of prison ministry”, and the benchmark by which all work in that field would be judged.

Former inmates, Corrections staff, old boys and girls from the trade training hostel days, May’s family — including her sons who had returned from London and Perth — and her dozens of friends joined with Nehe in affirming his assessment, and sharing their delight at May’s recognition.

It was significantly a Māori occasion. Which means, among other things, that there was a welcome, a full acknowledgment of the house, and the contributions of the many speakers were garnished with waiata.

And the himene they chose at the end underlined a plea that May had made real during all her years in the prisons — a plea she persuaded her friends to believe would never be denied, no matter who makes it:

Tenei hoki au, e Ihu

Whakarongo mai

I te mano e popoke

Kei kapea ko au

Pass me not, O gentle Saviour,

Hear my humble cry;

While on others Thou art calling,

Do not pass me by.


This story was first posted here in Taonga, and is republished here with permission.

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