restorative justice

Churches invited to be part of the Restorative Justice Process

Posted by | Doing Justice, Engaging Community | No Comments

Restorative justice, in its simplest form, is the attempt to make things as right as possible between victims, offenders, and the wider community when some harm or crime happens.  But what does that look like for those of us who work mostly with offenders, the folks who’ve hurt others or caused some sort of harm to others?

Most of my work is with men and women who’ve done federal prison time, and are transitioning into the Edmonton area.  They are trying to write new chapters for their lives, to walk new paths, to live in ways that are not defined by their pasts.  What does it for them to “make things as right as possible”?

Part of the answer, I think, is for faith communities and churches to create safe, welcoming spaces for folks leaving prison.

Every other Saturday, I facilitate a men’s group that usually consists of about a dozen men who’ve done time, and a dozen volunteers who want to support their reintegration. The group provides the space for our friends to explore a new identity, a new story for themselves – one that is not defined by crime, past abuse, or poor decisions.  Rather, through discussions, outings, and – most importantly – eating together, the men who attend can start to heal, seeing themselves as people with a new future.  They can start to ask what it might mean to make things right with the people they’ve hurt.  And when they mess up or take a few steps back, our group is there to pick them up again.

Churches and faith communities are just the sort of places capable of providing this sort of community.  It can be as simple as connecting with a local prison chaplain, reintegration chaplain, or community support program and asking where to begin.

Another important way to empower offenders to “make things right” with the wider community is to give opportunities for them to give back.  Are there jobs that we can offer to former inmates as they make a new start, so that they can provide for loved ones, support themselves, be part of a healthy workplace, and contribute to the wider community?  Are there volunteer opportunities that churches or their partners can offer, so that they can be givers and not just service-recipients?

Finally, churches and faith communities can make space for former inmates in their pews (or folding chairs or coffee shop benches).  Many former inmates long for a sense of belonging.  Churches can offer just that by the simple act of inviting them to church on Sundays, for coffee afterwards, or for lunch at the nearby diner when church is over.  Those simple invitations can be an echo of Jesus’ invitation to “all those who are weary and heavy-burdened,” and can be an opportunity to journey with someone who – like all of us – needs a fellow pilgrim to join them on their way to making things right with those they’ve hurt.

-written by Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning (Rev), Reintegration Chaplain, Open Door Program (The Mustard Seed, Edmonton, AB)

The Open Door Program (participants and staff pictured above) is an Operation Manna partner.

 

Willoughby CRC Hosts Play for Restorative Justice Week

Posted by | Doing Justice | No Comments

About 60 people gathered at Willoughby CRC (Langley, B.C.) on Nov 19 to see a dramatic presentation of “Forgiven/Forgotten” that set the tone for Restorative Justice Week.  The event was facilitated by Willoughby’s Just-Faith Forum, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and Trinity Western University’s school of the Arts, Media and Culture.

After the CRC in Canada (with its various partners) completed a 2-year study on the intersection of justice and faith in the Canadian CRC context, a one act play toured the country and brought the results of the study to life. Churches across Canada, like Willoughby CRC, responded in various ways to the tour.  Willoughby formed a JustFaith committee and, this Fall, helped to facilitate the production of the Forgiven/Forgotten play.

In this play, the talented cast of four with the traveling theatre company, Theatre of the Beat, engaged the crowd with a dramatization of what ordinary people experience when someone incarcerated returns “home” from prison.   The complete human drama of returning to society is usually unspoken and disregarded in our society, but it gripped us intimately that evening as it became real on the stage.

Through the actors’ dramatization, it became clear that sending someone to prison doesn’t do justice to the needs of the human beings involved; rather, it harms. The script is outlined: “Torn between compassion and their fear of the unknown, a church is thrown into turmoil upon hearing that an offender will be serving his parole in their community.”  It is precisely the human dimension of justice that is neglected by the formal criminal justice system.  Crime in our society is regarded as a legal offence against the state by having broken its laws; how people, even victims, are harmed, and who should meet their needs is not central to our present justice system. Restorative justice provides a different way.

The ripple effect of an incarceration and the impending parole disturbs the well-being of a human community.  The actors poignantly represented a variety of human reactions and unspoken fears. The wife of the prisoner struggles to keep her needs and situation secret as she desires church fellowship. Her desire to hide the fact that her husband is coming home from prison is made complex by her desire for normalcy in her young son’s life.  Church members, upon learning that the unknown prisoner husband will be coming to their community, anxiously confront their fears. The pastor wrestles with his theology as the gospel becomes personal.  Restorative justice calls for meaningful human response, the affirmation of each person’s worth, and for inclusion.

This play gets beyond the rhetoric of headlines and explicates the community drama behind the scenes of the prison and release experience.  It clearly shows the importance of restorative justice.  Although it is not necessarily without some pain as personal feelings and biases are faced, it is a ministry that brings reconciliation and needed community support for the prisoner and his/her family.

-written by Henry Smidstra, organizer of the Forgiven/Forgotten play (italicized paragraph added for context)

For more on restorative justice, click here.