The heavy prison door slammed behind him. Suddenly the cold, clammy cell triggered feelings that frightened him. After what had been a roller-coaster ride of danger, violence, and adrenaline, he broke down in this strange atmosphere of confinement. Sounds like the stifled sobs of a small child welled from deep within him.
Quickly he sucked in his breath and steeled himself. His father had drilled into him that boys don’t cry; they never show true feelings, except anger and contempt. It was all about survival in a cruel world: “If you don’t come up fighting, they’ll get you first.” His dad had spent most of his life in prison. Currently he was doing a long federal stint.
The son had savored the times when his dad had been home from prison, even though his father had fought with his mother. Perhaps now his dad would beproud of him, especially if he got some serious federal time as well (Canadian federal penitentiaries take prisoners who serve more than two years to life in prison). He would write to him as soon as possible. He sat down on the edge of his bed, and a strange calm fell over him. . . .
Can you imagine committing a crime to win a parent’s praise? Those of us who experienced stability and nurture in our families and communities often take those things for granted. Perhaps we attended Christian schools, felt secure in our relationships in our church and community, and were influenced significantly by caring role models. But that’s not the way it is for everyone.
The story above is a confluence of heart-wrenching stories I hear every day as a prison chaplain. I often ask myself, “Where was the community for this person when he or she was young?”
Thankfully, I’m able to offer the community a chance to be there now.
I let new prisoners know how they can apply to have an M2/W2 volunteer come visit them on a regular basis, and possibly also give them support after they’re released. M2/W2 stands for Man to Man/Woman to Woman, a ministry that matches volunteers from local churches with prisoners on a person-to-person basis, fostering some of the first healthy relationships some prisoners have. Currently there are about 210 incarcerated men in British Columbia alone waiting to be matched.
It is well known that individuals with positive family and social support have a much better chance of transcending antisocial connections and behavior. To build community and embrace the vulnerable and marginalized is, of course, also the DNA of Jesus’ teachings and work.
Matthew 25 emphasizes that our solidarity with Christ resides in our outreach to people who are often avoided and abandoned by society—those who are homeless, institutionalized, sick, and in prison. The unconditional and extravagant love of God through Christ is foundational to Christian thinking and critical to M2/W2’s mission.
M2/W2 has at its core the biblical values of reconciliation and restoration, which assist in creating a safer society. Restorative justice is forward-looking and focuses on responses to crime that address the harm and fears of all those involved.
Traditional responses focus on assigning legal blame and establishing punishment in the hope that doing so will create positive change. Yet, in view of crime statistics and the frustrated voices of so many victims of crime, that approach is sadly ineffective. Victims generally feel left out except for giving legal evidence. And the traditional approach doesn’t place much weight on human needs for emotional, physical, and spiritual healing—on the way forward to living together in the community.
Rather, just as they are crucial for victims, meaningful relationships can make all the difference for prisoners as they engage in a long process of healing and rebuilding their lives.
For more than a decade, volunteers Jim and Ann Kleingeltink of Willoughby Christian Reformed Church, Langley, British Columbia, were family to John while he was incarcerated. John still vividly recalls his first meeting with Jim. “It was a fluke,” he said. “Someone that Jim was going to meet didn’t show up, so I was matched with him.”
Jim visited John in prison regularly for years. When John was eligible for passes, he attended church with Jim and Ann and their family. John became one of the congregation’s regulars and enjoyed the fellowship after the service.
“He became a virtual family member,” said Ann. John relished Rev. Ken Boonstra’s leadership and pastoral care and wanted to continue in the Christian faith. When, after 12 years in custody, he moved to a halfway house in Vancouver, First CRC there agreed to become his new spiritual family.
After having spent years in the structure and security of prisons, being in the community can be a frightening experience without familiar and supportive people. “If it hadn’t been for that congregation, especially Pastor Vander Veen, his family, and the Van Rhyn family, I would not have made it through this new phase, either,” John said. He’s thankful for Jim and Ann and for everyone who opened their lives, homes, and churches to him.
Just Be Yourself
Despite the training volunteers receive from M2/W2, when they walk through the gates and metal detectors of a prison for the first time, they might ask, “What do I say to this person? How do I start?”
Their M2/W2 coordinator might respond this way: “Just be yourself; just show your humanity. This guy hasn’t met too many people in his life who simply listen to his stories without condemnation and rebuke. Just be a human presence—no preaching. Just be a channel of God’s love and grace.”
Too often we tend to focus primarily on religious conversion. But we need to realize that the Spirit of Christ transforms people’s lives most often through Christ’s love shown in the simple acts of daily life. This might include giving time to help someone look for a job, standing in line with him or her at a medical clinic or bank, or simply talking together over a mug of coffee.
In providing those ordinary yet biblical “cups of cold water,” we discover we are ministering to Christ himself. Actively participating in the lives of people in prison and those returning to society changes the way we see them. Visiting and supporting prisoners invites us to see them not as criminals, but as people, as human beings made in the image of God—and thus as our neighbors to whom we owe unending responses of love.
Prisons don’t need to be schools for crime; instead they can become places where people of grace speak the truth in love. I have seen long-term sanctifying relationships formed—seeds planted that many years later came to fruition in faithful living.
Mentoring prisoners is very much about planting seeds of faith. It’s not primarily about seeking religious converts, but of listening to prisoners’ stories and recognizing with them the presence of God in their lives.
In that mutual exchange of humanity, labels that divide and isolate people tear free and kinships form. And it can all begin on M2/W2 nights as you meet your match.
Just as we all do, offenders need healthy and responsive communities both for nurture and accountability. M2/W2 Restorative Christian Ministries (m2w2.com; 1.800.298-1777) began in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area in 1966. It was inspired by a Presbyterian pastor in Washington state who sensed the importance of the biblical mandate to visit prisoners and also realized the practical outcome of showing them love and acceptance. Included among early M2/W2 pioneers were numerous dedicated volunteers from the Mennonite and Reformed communities. In addition to British Columbia, M2/W2 programs can also be found in Alberta; in Saskatchewan, they are called Person to Person; in Manitoba, Open Circle; in Quebec, P2; in the Maritimes, Christian Council for Reconciliation; and in Newfoundland, One-to-One. Similar mentorship programs exist in Michigan and other states of the U.S. as well. These programs need the support of local churches to help in their vital work of rehabilitation and transformation. (As of June, M2/W2 was facing an unexpected and unprecedented financial shortfall.) For further resources and information on how your church can be involved in restorative justice, see crcjustice.org.