When men from the local correctional facility started volunteering at St. Andrews United in Yorkton, it tranformed everyone. Diaconal minister Jen Dresser shares this story.
Three summers ago, the church people had gone to the lake and no one could mow the lawn. That’s when it started.
Whitespruce Training Centre—a pilot project at a new provincial correctional facility had a new work crew that was looking for things to do. One morning a van pulled up, and six men got out. They mowed grass, trimmed hedges, pulled weeds and came back once a week for the rest of the summer. They washed the big tall windows no one else would climb a ladder to clean.
When fall came, there was less outdoor work, and the work crew was still looking for things to do. They shovelled snow for seniors. They came inside and painted walls, shampooed carpets, cut out templates for children’s programs, made soup mixes for the food shelf, barbequed for the garage sale and moved the big, heavy tables for funerals and teas. There was some discomfort within the congregation about having people from the Whitespruce around. Was it safe? Would things go missing? Would someone get attacked?
This is a provincial facility so the offences are non-violent and the offenders fairly low risk. Once congregational members started interacting with the work crew I got comments like, “He’s so polite and respectful.” “He’s a hard worker.” And then come questions, “why can’t he get a job?” And then we started talking about the cycle of poverty, racism, gangs, addictions, mental health, residential schools and the stigma of having a record. People who were initially skeptical now make a point of bringing baking when the work crew is in the building. The congregation is shifting and being transformed because of these interactions.
But something else is shifting too. The work crew has a high turnover. Many of the folks on work crew know of church only by stereotype or through a bad experience. Marge describes it as “church resistant. They are not going in there! They hate what church represents—residential schools and goody two shoe stuff. They are surprised to realize church folks are neat, cool dudes.”
Now, it isn’t unusual for men from Whitesprice to get a pass to come for worship on Sunday morning or ask if they can come and help with special events outside of work crew. Ken* got a pass for a Sunday morning so he could play his guitar and sing for us. When Shane* was about to be released, he thanked me for being able to come to the church because we treated him with respect and he had never had that before. He told me that because of this experience he was on a good path getting out and would work hard to provide for his family.
Several folks have stayed in Yorkton upon being released because of their connection with the congregation. If something happens and there’s a crisis we see folks drop in to chat, to find resources, to take food or clothing home with them.
Some people do well when released, but not everyone. Kris* and Trent* have left Yorkton but still call to check in and let us know they are doing well. Ken* was doing good and we saw him around regularly. Then he disappeared for a while. When we saw him again, he was using drugs again. There are so many challenges to overcome when being released. Social Services might take weeks to start releasing funds. Some people have custody issues. Marge (and I think many others) are asking this question: “What happens when they hit the street [after being in Whitespruce] with no homes or family or resources or work and a criminal record?” Even with the training and experience they gain while at Whitespruce, living on the outside is challenging and there are not enough addiction and mental health services to support people in their addiction recovery.
In the three years, we’ve been doing this ministry, there have been very few incidents, but over the last two months, the work has become more challenging. There have been some incidents where people have felt threatened, and recently Allycia (our administrator) had her van stolen by Don* and Steve* while they were on work crew. They were involved in a high-speed chase which ended with no injuries. Don had been around the church for several months. He helped with the garage sale, and a basement reno project and was within two weeks of being released. Before he took the van, Don spoke about how he had no place to go when he got out—no home, no family, no job, no plans.
Questions about personal safety are now front and center of this ministry. With these events, I was concerned that the congregation would respond by ending this relationship and all the ministries that have spiralled out from it. Instead, the congregation has become more firmly and actively engaged. The congregation is wrestling with difficult questions. How do we ensure personal safety while still being welcoming and inviting? How do we take a courageous risk of supporting people facing significant challenges that are, for the most part, beyond the experience of many congregants? How do we address the larger systemic questions of poverty, racism, gangs, addictions and mental health that keep so many people trapped? What are the real solutions that are going to help change individual lives and change the community around us?
The week following her van being stolen van, Allycia was off. Geoff made a point of being in the building so that I would not be alone. Many of the same work crew were present and wanted to know that Allcyia was OK. They wanted to offer their own apologies and care for her. Even in the midst of anger and frustration, Allcyia continues to be an advocate for this relationship and points out that only two of the work crew were involved and that the others should not be punished for their actions. She also notes that it is difficult being the one who has been hurt in this event.
In a scene from the movie “Sister Act.” The main character, Delores, witnessed a murder and is hiding in a convent while she waits for the trial. The convent is in an inner city and has hidden itself away from the neighbourhood. The Mother Superior is concerned with protecting the convent and the women in her care. Delores sees a neighbourhood in need of the care the convent can offer. There’s a bit of a power struggle as the convent opens its doors, cleans up the neighbourhood, builds relationships and starts serving a hot meal. Mother Superior says that the sisters, “imagine this neighbourhood to be some sort of delightful, on-going bake sale. You and I know things are not so simple. There will be disappointments and rude shocks. . .”
This ministry is no longer a delightful, on-going bakesale. There is a significant shift happening at this moment in the relationship between the congregation and Whitespruce Training Centre. We are reflecting on questions of identity, ministry and mission. I am excited to see where the Spirit leads us in the next phase of this ministry.
Rev Jen Dresser is a graduate of CCS.