It’s late on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and I am in a narrow office overlooking Edmonton’s river valley. The office is part of Grierson Institution, a small prison in downtown Edmonton where federal inmates serve time before being released to the community. On this particular afternoon, I am chatting with a man named Kevin. Kevin is in his early 50’s, and will soon be released after 3 years in prison. This is his second prison sentence, and this time around, he is serious about wanting a fresh start, a new beginning.
As he thinks about that new beginning, he has some questions: what church will be willing to take him in? What are his job prospects? Where will he meet positive people? Will his old community take him back? What are Edmonton’s halfway houses like? His questions continue for the rest of the afternoon.
By the time we are done chatting, the sun has set. I start my walk home in the dark, but not before giving my friend my phone number, urging him to call me when he gets out. Each week, I meet men and women like Kevin – folks who want to leave the chaotic and confusing lives that led them to prison, but who aren’t quite sure how.
As one of two reintegration chaplains at the Open Door program (an Operation Manna partner), I have the privilege of accompanying folks leaving prison and transitioning into the Edmonton area. Through a volunteer mentorship program, men’s and women’s reintegration support groups, arts and crafts initiatives, spiritual retreats, entry level work opportunities, and the one-to-one support of chaplains like myself, the Open Door program tries to convey a few simple messages to inmates who are working towards positive change in their lives: second chances are possible, and you are not alone . . . we’re in your corner. We’ve found that those simple truths – when they are embodied by a supportive community of staff and volunteers – can make all the difference in the world for those leaving prison.
We’ve found that our program fills a need in Edmonton, where more inmates are released than almost any other urban centre in Canada. We welcome over 50 former inmates to our support groups each year, and 25 individuals participate in our mentorship program yearly. My colleague Debbie and I journey with over 100 former inmates each year, driving them to landlord meetings, visiting them in hospital, meeting with their parole officers, introducing them to potential employers, and drinking hundreds of cups of coffee as we listen to their stories of struggle, celebration, and hope.
Even though our communities often fear folks who’ve been in prison, we find that inmates are often much more afraid of us – the community – than we are of them. We try to work through their fear as best we can, trying to be an open door to folks who experience one closed door after another when they’re released.
And after 20 years of doing this work in Edmonton, we’ve found that the Open Door works. Over the years, 2/3rds of those we support do not reoffend, a vast improvement over national reoffending statistics. Gregory Boyle of HomeBoy Industries insists that we are all called to “stand with the disposable until we stop throwing people away.” In a small way, that is our calling at the Open Door program – to stand with folks like Kevin, folks many would rather keep at the fringes of our communities, until we stop pushing them away but instead offer them the second chance they need.
–by Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning, chaplain for the Open Door project, which receives grant money and development services as an Operation Manna partner.
What to know more about Operation Manna and what partnership means? Click here.