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God’s love incarnate in a jail cell

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“Can you help me?” asked the voice over the phone. Usually when I receive such a call my impulse is to hang up, particularly when I’m unable to identify the voice. I made a quick decision and gave the caller a break. “Yes?”

“You visit Stony Mountain?” I didn’t ask how he knew that information. But I was hooked. The caller went on to tell his story.

More than 20 years ago, he had been in Stony Mountain Institution, a Correctional Service of Canada facility outside Winnipeg. While there, he had participated in a Christian visitation program for prisoners and a couple had visited him for more than three years. Those visits had helped him get on track.

The caller came from a dysfunctional family, where three brothers had died from alcohol and drug abuse. His mother had died broken-hearted, an alcoholic as well. He didn’t mention anything about his father. He said he was now the only person in his immediate family still alive.

“I want to find that couple,” he said. “They helped me get my life together. I want to thank them and tell them I’m OK.” He went on to say he’d been dry for the past 20 years and hadn’t used illegal drugs since his release. He had a good job and was doing some addictions counselling for a First Nations organization.

It took some creative sleuthing, but within a few days I found the couple. The former inmate and the husband and wife were able to contact each other.

When I first located the couple, I asked them about their experience as visitors in a correctional facility. Humbly, they said they had faithfully visited this man and a few others over the years. They regularly prayed for all the inmates they had met, even after they were released from prison. With some, they maintained ongoing contact. With others, they never heard from them again.

The story is not uncommon. That’s the purpose of prison visitation ministry.

The importance of visitation ministry

Several times in the Bible, Jesus refers to the importance of visiting those in prison. One is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind” (Luke 4:18). Another comes at the end of his ministry, when Jesus chides his followers for ignoring those who are incarcerated: “I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…. Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:43, 45).

There are numerous visitation programs that operate in conjunction with the Canadian correctional system. Some are run by Christian organizations and some by chaplaincy services within correctional facilities.

In Manitoba, Mennonite Central Committee operates a program called Open Circle. Hundreds of volunteers have served in the ministry and thousands of prisoners have received visits over its 30-year existence.
When I began to volunteer with Open Circle, I discovered an interesting phenomenon among men from First Nations communities. Often, they don’t see their family or friends, although they do keep in touch by telephone. When I asked why, the guys told me they didn’t want their loved ones to see them in prison. It was humiliating.
An Aboriginal elder further explained that Stony Mountain was seen by many within the Aboriginal community as a place of evil. “We simply don’t wish to go there – even to visit our relatives,” he said.
Hence, people in prison usually welcome visits more than we think.

Steps to building relationships

Once paired with an inmate through an interview process, the initial step is to build a relationship. Volunteers try to find common interests with their companions.

One of the people I visited was as passionate about sports as I was. Twice a month, we’d analyze the National Football League, American college ball games, and the Canadian Football League. It was a challenge to watch all the games in order to stay current and not appear foolish during our next visit. It was fun, and I sure learned a lot about football!

A volunteer may encounter substantive questions and bridge-building opportunities during visits. But I’ve learned never to ask why an inmate was arrested or with what illegal activities he was involved.
Sometimes it comes up in casual conversation, but it’s largely irrelevant. Much more important are the comments, concerns, and questions of faith, hope, and the reason for living.

I’ve also learned never to give advice of any sort unless specifically asked. As one fellow once told me, “We know we’re bad and have done bad things. We don’t need to be reminded that we screwed up!”

Motivation for going behind bars

Why does a person engage in such ministry? For me, the question can be answered in two parts. First, if it wasn’t for the grace of God working through the lives of some fantastic people during my youth, I could have been sentenced to prison. A few wonderful, yet tough men in my church found creative ways to deal with me.

Prison would have changed me – probably not for the better. For me, serving with Open Circle is a way to pay back the people in my community who dealt with me graciously in my youth.

Second, I’ve met some incredibly interesting and unique individuals. The inmates who want to have visitors are eager for guests to come and are often sad when they leave. Visitors provide a diversion from daily routines, fear, and rigid regimes.

Furthermore, volunteers aren’t part of the Canadian correctional system. As such, they may play a role in the most important program inmates will encounter within prison, serving as instruments of peace and potential change.

Prison visitation isn’t always an easy experience. It’s often sad to hear the inmates’ stories about abuse, dysfunctional families, and alcohol and drug abuse. Many have grown up on the street, where the only people who looked after them were criminals who used them for theft, drug pushing, or other illegal activity. But a listening ear and words of hope have the power to change lives.

A story of transformation   

One day when I went to visit my guy in Stony Mountain, I was greeted with words I’ll never forget. “Ken, I feel so sorry for what happened to your people.” Puzzled, I asked him to explain. He was talking about the murder of the Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
“How can they forgive the murderer?” he asked. It was a hot topic inside Stony, since most of the guys couldn’t understand how family and community members could forgive such a crime.

Over the next two months, the Nickel Mines shooting was all we spoke about. I gave my guy articles on forgiveness, including an issue of the MB Herald, materials from various organizations and church groups, and a couple of Gideon Bibles.

In the meantime, my companion told me another story. I soon began to understand his keen interest in forgiveness. Months before, his brother had died of a drug overdose. The brother was a severe diabetic and their cousin, a drug pusher, had given him some drugs, promising he could use them without any adverse consequences.

The cousin was wrong. The drugs killed his brother. The family feared that as soon as my guy was out of prison, he would severely beat or kill his relative.

One day, as we sat down to talk, he had something important to say. “Ken, I’ve read all this stuff and the Bible and I’ve become a Christian. I have forgiven my cousin. I called him and told him so.” I wept.
It’s now been two years since his release. He is struggling in his faith, but hasn’t harmed his cousin. That’s why prison ministry is so important.

If, as a Christian community, we feel compelled to curb violence and crime, we must courageously enter into the lives of those who are socially disadvantaged and do our part, one by one. That way, we’ll build a more civil and safe society. We’ll also have the opportunity to introduce God’s love and transformation into someone’s life.

Ken Reddig lives in Pinawa, Manitoba, and is executive secretary of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. He remains involved with Open Circle.

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