The face of God in the unlovely
My summer walking alongside an ex-offender
I’ve always enjoyed discussing issues faced by marginalized people, signing letters and petitions, and theorizing solutions to poverty and crime – but I never imagined myself working for an organization that supports high-profile ex-sex offenders. Sure, I’ve had lots of experience on mission trips and volunteering at church, but loving children is a far cry from loving a middle-aged pedophile. It seems counterintuitive; I felt profoundly uncomfortable when I began an internship with Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA – see sidebar) in May.
Yet, as one choosing to follow in Christ’s footsteps, I am called to “love the unlovely.” I know Christ asks me to love my enemies, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and visit those who are in prison, but there’s often a gulf between my understanding and my actions.
So, this past summer, I followed Jesus into a scary place: working for the CoSA initiative in Halifax. Modelling pro-social behaviour and offering friendship to an ex-sex offender may seem mundane, but by offering themselves as accountability partners, CoSA volunteers have seen amazing results. Beyond caring for physical needs, CoSA members live out Christ’s call to love.
Loving my enemy
One CoSA volunteer observed a split between the core member (ex-offender) whom she accepts and loves, and the sexual abuser whose crimes disgust her. At CoSA, the fact that God loves both victim and offender the same is no longer theory, but something to put into practice. How do I do as God does? If I’m the hands and feet of Christ, how shall I act?
In preparation for my term, I read government research papers on recidivism, articles on CoSA’s programs and history, papers on restorative justice initiatives, and an intense book on sex-offender typology and behaviour. Having seen results of CoSA and heard the stories of transformed lives, I wanted so badly to be a cog in the machine.
Yet, to my shame, I was fearful of loving people the way God loves them. I was afraid of these men and women who can be manipulative, aggressive, and self-serving. Their incomprehensible crimes and inscrutable motivations made them profoundly unlovely to me. How can I work with people who are the epitome of everything I was taught to fear? Loving my enemy as myself had never felt so real.
The first core member I met was ruddy, grumpy, and unkempt. But I liked his smile and silly sense of humour. He looked like someone’s grandpa, but there was a childish quality to his character. He was large and looked much older than he was. He scared me a little, but even more scary was his desperation for love, because I recognized the same need in myself. This is what CoSA offers: unexpected acceptance to a person who sees him- or herself as unacceptable. It won’t solve all my friend’s behavioural or medical issues, and I don’t know if he ever will “get better,” but love is a powerful thing.
Hearing the volunteers talk about their experiences house hunting, grocery shopping, going for ice cream, and then listening to my new friend sharing as well, I realized that the daily, trivial things are what matter most. Taking time to listen can have a major impact on a person who has never felt heard. These are the greatest acts of love we can do.
I could see that all these acts of love have changed my friend. Through his time with CoSA, he has become a better man – and his volunteers haven’t gone unchanged either. Over the years, they’ve grown together, and as they become closer, fear dissolves into camaraderie. Like rocks in a tide of personal struggle, prejudice, and growth, they are grinding one another into something smooth and beautiful, albeit imperfect.
I heard a still small voice calling me to plant my own seeds; God would ensure they grow to produce a harvest for his glory (1 Corinthians 3:6). A variety of men and women with different pasts and struggles meet together in Circles. No one is especially heroic or strong: they are average people, just like you and me. Against all fear, God gave me the love I needed – not through my own strength but his.
A Circle is much like a marriage: participants partner together against what life throws their way. Support is key, but inauthentic unless there’s also accountability. Unlike the harsh voice of authority, the voice of love – demanding better for the individual and the community – cannot be ignored.
Now, with the internship behind me and a new setting before me, I’m unsure whether God has a lifelong calling on me for this work. The experience took a lot out of me emotionally and spiritually, but I’m grateful for it. As a newlywed who often thinks about my new friend, I understand more and more what can happen when God begins to refocus someone’s quiet, desperate eyes. What a thing to watch, as
the unlovely slowly but surely becomes loved!
Selina Mullin Ingles is a recent graduate of St. Stephen’s University, N.B., where she completed a BA in interdisciplinary studies, as well as an honours thesis. Her CoSA work was part of a joint Summerbridge and advocacy internship through Mennonite Central Committee. She is currently living in Ottawa with her husband Zack. She grew up at Gateway Community Church, Lower Sackville, N.S.