“When a man or woman leaves prison to resettle in the community, there’s just one closed door after another,” explained Christian Reformed pastor Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning. Landlords, employers, old friends, and others are afraid to give former inmates a second chance.
Nicolai-deKoning is a reintegration chaplain at The Neighbour Centre’s Open Door Project in Edmonton, Alberta. That ministry seeks to be an open door through which parolees can experience life-giving community and hope for a better future.
Edmonton has more parolees than any other region in Canada because of the large number of prisons, jails, and halfway houses in Alberta, as well as job opportunities that draw former offenders from elsewhere. Nicolai-deKoning said statistics show that approximately two-thirds of parolees will be back in prison within a couple of years without the presence of supportive healthy relationships and communities. Through the Open Door Project, the chaplaincy ministry has been able to reduce the return rate considerably.
Chris, for example, was incarcerated for several years on drug charges. The story of his journey to prison is a complicated one that includes his own drug use, a family involved in crime, and little formal education. As he prepared to leave prison, Chris attended the Saturday Night Men’s Group and met regularly with Nicolai-deKoning. Two years after being released, and well into a successful career as a boilermaker, Chris still attends the Saturday Night gatherings—now as a mentor and model to inmates and parolees who are starting the same journey.
Last year, 25 former inmates were mentored and over 50 were welcomed to the Open Door Project’s reintegration support groups. In addition, Nicolai-deKoning and his colleague who ministers to female parolees, each met one-on-one with over 100 former inmates. Approximately 40 volunteers contributed over 2,000 hours.
Nicolai-deKoning described the common experience of many volunteers who help with the Saturday Night Men’s Group. “Many volunteers who come to our group for the first time spend much of the evening trying to figure out who is a volunteer and who is an inmate or parolee. Many eventually take me aside and ask, ‘So, who else is a volunteer?’” he said. “In some ways, that is what the groups and our programs are all about, finding common ground between folks with very different life experiences, creating community among unlikely friends, and moving together.”
The Neighbour Centre and the offices of the Open Door Project are located in the basement of Edmonton’s Strathcona Baptist Church. Nicolai-deKoning is a member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton.