It was 2001. One night as I slept I dreamt that I was walking through large, double doors leading into a prison. My cousin, who had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life, was showing me the way. He was taking me in to work with the prisoners.
We came to a large swimming pool where prisoners were standing shoulder to shoulder, packed in so tightly they couldn’t move. I was enthusiastic as I thought I was going to work with them. But my cousin said, “No, you’re not going to work with those men.” We continued on and came to another swimming pool, but this time there were only two or three prisoners in it, swimming about freely.
My cousin stated matter-of-factly, “You’re going to work with these men.”
I felt disappointed and immediately awoke. The dream was so vivid that I felt an intense sadness as I wasn’t going to work with the large number of men and was only going to work with the few. The dream seemed so real I asked, “God, are you calling me to work with prisoners?”
Spring forward to 2003 and I’ve applied for and been offered work as Community Chaplain with Bridge Ministries for Mennonite Central Committee, helping prisoners to reintegrate once they’ve been released from prison. I requested some time to consider the offer before accepting it, as I’m Catholic and didn’t know anything about Mennonites.
I met with the Bishop to ask what he thought. “Mennonites are on the cutting edge of prison ministry work,” he told me. “Perhaps a few men will be saved through your ministry.”
“A few men,” I thought, “Well, that seems to fit with the dream I had.”
I took the job.
Sometime later, in mid 2004 I met Bob Smith (not his real name) in Drumheller Institution. He was getting out in 2005 and we struck up a friendship. When Bob was released I met him and we got together a number of times for coffee, to attend church and to talk. I liked Bob. He was very personable and like a lot of other guys needed a hand up to get started again.
One day he didn’t have any food in his fridge so I went to my Mom and was talking to her about Bob’s situation. She offered to pray for him and gave me some money so he could get some food. I took it and gave it to Bob and told him it was for food. He went out and got drugs instead.
He ended up back in Drumheller Pen and the last time I saw him was in Drumheller in 2006. I learned a lesson the hard way through Bob about addicts, money and drugs.
Fast forward to March 22, 2017, my Mom’s birthday, although she passed away several years ago. The phone rang and it was Bob. “Do you remember me?” he asks.
I’m searching through my memory cells and say yes, as I do recall his name. As we talked, I kept trying to remember more details about Bob.
In the meantime he said to me “I want to apologize to you”.
“Apologize?” I asked. “I don’t think you need to apologize to me for anything.”
“Yes, you helped me an awful lot,” he replied, “and it really meant a lot to me and I need to apologize. I’m doing well now. I’m a millwright and have plans to be certified soon. I want to thank you for all the help you gave me.”
Now the wheels were turning in my mind.
“Bob, I’m sure you don’t have to apologize to me,” I responded, “and as far as help, I just journeyed along with you for a while and you did all the hard work to get to where you’re at today”.
We chatted a bit and agreed to get together for coffee and hung up. Then I began to remember. Bob and I spent quite a bit of time together. Now I know why he’s apologizing. It’s about the money for food that went to drugs instead. Now, eleven years later, he’s got it together and is phoning to apologize!
I’ve received many blessings through this work. Bob’s story is one of them. I’m writing this on March 22, 2017, my Mom’s birthday, and can’t help but wonder if she’s been praying for Bob all along! Although it’s her birthday, in a roundabout way she has given me the gift today.
I’ve been providing support to ex-prisoners for 14 years now. In that time I’ve seen many lives change through God’s grace. Like Bob, there are other offenders that recognize they’ve done wrong, are remorseful and go about making amends and changing their lives.
Current examples include Jack (not his real name). This Easter he will enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. He was released from prison this past fall and has faithfully attended Mass and faith formation classes, growing in his understanding of Christianity. He’s excited about becoming Catholic and following Jesus more deeply. He’s been diligent in making changes so that no one is victimized by him again.
Another ex-prisoner goes to an Evangelical church where he attends a course Saturday mornings with other men. It provides him with fellowship, role modeling and friends he can turn to when he needs to talk. He also attends the service there Saturday evenings alongside volunteers that have befriended him and welcomed him into that faith community. He is committed to change his life.
One final example is an ex-prisoner who was released last summer. He’s consistent in his church attendance and often speaks of his relationship with Christ. He’ll give a presentation at a Catholic Youth Rally this April encouraging the youth to stay on a good path, using his past life as an example of what not to do. He’s putting his faith into action!
Less than 10% of men in prison attend chapel services while inside. They are the few among the many, as in my dream. I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to provide these men practical and spiritual support as they journey towards God. Additional help is needed, and you’re welcome to join in.
There are many opportunities to help transform lives through ministry to prisoners across Canada and the U.S. In Calgary, contact Restorative Justice Ministries, Mennonite Central Committee at 403-275-6935. For more information visit Bridge Ministries – Community Chaplaincy
Bridge Ministries is funded by Correctional Service Canada, Catholic Charities and donations to Mennonite Central Committee Alberta.