Easter has always been my favourite celebration of the year for as far back as I can remember; there can be nothing but joy after a long season of darkness and death – right? As I write this, I am feeling more than a little doubtful of my optimism in that between entering the third wave of this world wide pandemic and the ongoing struggles in my personal life, I find myself relating more to Job ‘sitting in the ashes and scraping his sores,’ than to abundant, new life springing forth. In the past 21 months, as a woman, as a mother, as a grandmother and as a chaplain, I have been forced by turmoil in my personal life to contemplate inwardly and at a depth that I never even fathomed existed, to try to survive and find meaning and purpose in my life and in particular whether or not I could continue to serve as a prison chaplain that reflected Christ’s love to those whom I serve.
When I first began in prison chaplaincy, it was incredibly humbling to listen to the personal stories of inmates in the privacy and safety of my office or in the sacred space of the chapel. Often, their life long challenges of trauma, poverty and mental illness resulted in a revolving door of addictions, hospitalizations and incarceration. I vividly remember telling my family and friends that I could not believe that many of the inmates I had the privilege of knowing, still had the gumption to get out of bed every morning to face each new day as it presented itself. That took courage and a whole lot of faith after what they had suffered through. I very quickly realized that although my life had not been ideal per say, it had been blessed with an incredibly strong, sound, support system that included my faith in God, my family, my health and an education that afforded me meaningful employment along with socially just wages. These factors alone meant that I had essentially won the ‘Lottery of Life’.
Overall, I was quite happy how my journey through life had unfolded so far and I was definitely still passionate about my work as a chaplain; really things had never seemed better. I had transferred to a new Province to work at a new prison located in the ‘Wine Capital’ of Canada, I could ride my horses along the river and up into the vineyards with mountain views and scenery that never lost its charm. I felt on top of the world and in control of my destiny!
And then, in what seemed like an instant, everything changed, and my illusion of control over my life came crashing down around me. My marriage unexpectedly ended leaving me shattered emotionally, Covid 19 appeared on the world stage, leaving me and my two children that are still at home, isolated from all of the rest of my children and family far away in another Province and then my mother was diagnosed with cancer during the first lock down and died within a month. Those were the ‘big ones,’ but as we all know, there is a plenitude of ‘small ones’ that come along with it. And so, I found myself alone, like I have never been before, grief so profound, both physical and mental, sensations that actually frightened me and caused me to question my sanity. I lost all trust in people that they really were capable of change and growth when given unconditional love and an environment of supports. I no longer felt that the light could overcome the darkness especially in prison, and for the first time in all of my years of ministry, I felt like a fraud, that my very presence in the prison was a complete disservice to prison chaplaincy in itself.
But God is good, and God is great, and God never gave up on me! He sent me help in every way possible even when it came oddly disguised as gigantic challenges. In January of 2020, God tasked me with teaching a prison based program on emotional healing to 8 of our worst behaved inmates in the prison. Over time, all of them had been removed from other Units and housed in the ‘Special Management Unit’ due to their inability to function in a behaviourally acceptable way with other inmates and staff. The program consisted of 14 lessons, 2 hours per session, twice per week, beginning at 9:00 am in the morning. I made a friendly bet with the other chaplain that by the third lesson, no one would still be attending, the odds of success were astronomically poor. The topic itself was contentious, the time of day it was offered cut into their ability to sleep in and the commitment of fourteen sessions in order to earn their certificate was logistically almost impossible. I asked John, a volunteer from the community to help me, I assured him it wouldn’t be a long gig. Just shake their hand each morning when they come in the door, look past their behaviour and listen with your heart and make sure to have the coffee and treat ready for break time. I really felt that I was in no head space to facilitate this program as I was in a very emotionally fragile state myself, but I also had nothing more to lose. And so we began and it was as predictable as I had imagined; they were argumentative, demanding, and as misbehaved as a large group of unmedicated ADHD Grade 8 school boys. Then to add insult to injury, was their discovery that at the end of each class, mandatory homework was to be completed by the next class. Totally unacceptable and downright ridiculous with of course lots of f-bombs thrown in!
Much to my surprise, I lost the bet, they all made it past the third lesson and then the fourth and the fifth and so on. Their behaviour wasn’t improving much but they were showing up and although they didn’t appear happy, I knew something was shifting inside of them and inside of me. I don’t think I slept through the night for those 2 months, I would wake up and ruminate on what we had discussed, on the little bits of insight they had provided about themselves that helped me to formulate what they were trying to communicate in their ‘language.’ They even managed to haphazardly do their homework and shockingly when one of these men from time to time would end up in Segregation, (due to Unit Charges) they would have an officer call me to make sure I brought down their book and homework so they wouldn’t fall behind! Ever so slowly, they began to trust me and ever so slowly I began to trust them, but it was not easy for a single one of us. The most combative man in this program, who was only 27 years old, but had spent all of his teenage years in juvenile detention and was the heavy of the group, sat down one morning when it was just him and I alone for a few moments. He flatly announced that his mom, his only parent, his only family member, had suddenly died in a car accident when he was just 18 months old. Ah, how it broke my heart to hear how it had obviously broken his little boy’s heart before he even had the capability to tell anyone in a language that could be understood. All his life, he was trying to tell the world how angry he was that his mom, the centre of his very life, had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared, forever! What courage and what painful, inner reflection late at night in the darkness of his cell that it must have taken for him to realize where the suffering had begun that had held him hostage all of these years. It wasn’t until the second last class that I was finally able to let my guard down about the struggle I was having from the effects of losing of my marriage that had meant so much to me.
It was on being asked to write this blog post that I reflected and realized it was in that very moment of truth telling, of revelation, no holds barred, that for the first time I was on a level playing field with my imprisoned brothers. My life was not better than theirs, my life was not worst than theirs, we had become equals in our ability to accept one another as we were. And what a beautiful, life altering change it became for every one of us. All eight men completed that course on emotional healing and earned their certificate, but more than that, we all concluded that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; suffering feels the same for everyone. It is how we live that suffering and how one day we finally must decide if we are going to keep transmitting our pain onto others or if we are going to let our pain transform us into a new way of being, just like Christ exemplified for us in his life, in his death and in his resurrection. No wonder I love Easter! When the suffering has come full circle, we truly are made into brand new creations in Christ and we can begin again with the strength, courage and wisdom that illuminates from God and each one of us.
Seven of these men who have repeatedly been incarcerated from their youth on, have since been released and have not come back to jail. Steve is still with us as he will soon be sentenced and moved to the Federal Correctional Service. He lives on a regular Unit and has not had any new Institutional Charges since the completion of the program. Just last week he told a Deputy Warden that “Prison programs are useless. All of them should be like the one Joanne taught – you know, that have homework – cause that’s what really works.” No, Steve, it wasn’t the homework, it is that Christ was with us, he used me, a broken vessel and he used John a pillar of our community, to show all of us that we do matter, that someone believes in us and loves us unconditionally. Thank you, God for restoring my faith in humanity, thank you Steve, Jake, Abe, Jared, Rudy, Max, Liam and Wayne* for sharing in my journey of healing and allowing me to share in yours.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
*Names have been changed
Joanne Klone, IPCA North America Rep.