Tue, Mar 20, 2012
Being part of the flexible training environment here at CFOT has afforded me the opportunity to work in the Salvation Army’s corrections program. I spend a good portion of my time in training at the local detention centre supporting individuals who are in custody awaiting trial. The Remand Centre is a place where people are confronted with the harsh reality of their lives and where they search for signs of hope and promise in the midst of suffocating darkness. It is a place of great uncertainty for both them and me.
On most days through the week, I make the short walk up the street from CFOT to the Remand Centre. My mind invariably races during this brief 7-8 minute journey. On my way there, I wonder how I will react to the sound of a succession of heavy steel doors slamming shut and locking behind me as I make my way down the hallways into the interview rooms. I wonder how comfortable I will be sitting in front of people who have lived lives drastically different than my own. I wonder how God could ever use me to shed some light in such a foreboding and dark place.
I enter into the Centre with the best of intentions – to share the love of God and the promise of the Cross in ways that might provide individuals with some hope. Yet, I am reminded daily of how daunting the opposition to this aim can be. I sit in those small glassed-in interview rooms and wait for inmates to be brought down for a visit. These can be the longest five or ten minutes of my day. I can feel the pressure of having dozens of eyes glare at me as guards, other inmates and visitors wonder why on earth I would want to be there…what my motives could possibly be…why I am not doing good somewhere else, like in a Salvation Army soup kitchen or something. In these moments, the words of John come to mind. “This is the judgment: that light has entered the world, and men have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. Each person who does wrong hates the light and keeps away from it, for fear their deeds may be exposed” (Jn.3:1-20). The propensity towards darkness and stagnation is very real and very difficult to alter at the Remand Centre.
Despite these difficult moments, my heart is drawn to those in the Remand Centre. My short walks up the street to the Centre are full of eager anticipation as well, as my mind turns to those inmates who find themselves in a place they never thought they would ever be. When I look across the table at these individuals, I see some mother’s child who has simply lost their way somewhere along the line and who desperately longs for a way out of the darkness that enshrouds their lives. I hear in their voices the words of the prophet Isaiah. “We look for light, but all is darkness; we look for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes” (Isa.59:9b-10a).
As the inmates tell their stories, the “if only’s” invariably begin to set in. If only they had a positive influence in their lives before they made their fateful decisions. If only they had help from teachers and social workers along the way who could have set them off in a different direction. If only they knew that God loved them and saw the dignity and worth in them that others do not.
I answer the inmates’ questions, talk about God and try to convey a sense of optimism about what their futures have in store for them. But as I do this, a voice screams in my head, “What they have had to deal with in their lives is so unfair!” Nevertheless, I press on. “I may not be able to do much,” I think to myself, “but at least I can show them that I care.” In my ministry at the Centre, I have adopted the motto of Amnesty International – “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Perhaps I can be that candle inmates can cling to as they await trial and serve their time…
As my tenure at the Remand Centre winds down and I begin to prepare for my first appointment as a Salvation Army officer, the words of the apostle Paul have taken on a greater significance for me.
“You are all people of the light and people of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled.” (1 Thess. 5:5-8a)
I feel fortunate to have grown up in a good Christian family. Unlike the inmates whom I visit, I know that I am loved by God and cherished by others. God has blessed me with a wonderful home corps family (Mountain Citadel, Hamilton) who have been instrumental in my formation. He has given me a beautiful, God-fearing wife who challenges me to be the man and servant God created me to be. He has called me to officership, providing me with an opportunity to share the love of Christ with others. I have been handed many gifts that have made it easy for me to “belong to the day.” I feel blessed to have been in a position these last two years to be used by God to bring the light of Christ into the lives of individuals who have known so much darkness.
Tomorrow, I will make my way back up the street to the Remand Centre and do what I can to bring a few moments of comfort and companionship to individuals who desperately need it. I will sit in my little glass room and feel judged, alone and unwelcomed. I will struggle with angry feelings as I reflect on the injustice and unfairness in this world that ruins lives, limits opportunities and crushes the human spirit . But I cling to the hope filled words of my Saviour: “You are the world’s light…Men do not light a lamp and put it under a bucket. They put it on a lamp stand, and it gives light for everybody in the house” (Mt.5:14-15). I continue to hope that God will use me to bring light into the lives of those at the Remand Centre.
I trust that God somehow will use those moments I have with inmates – moments of uncertainty and awkwardness, moments of not knowing what to say or how to comfort individuals as they continue to journey in darkness, moments of wondering if I am making a difference or am even welcomed. I continue to believe that God has great plans for those inmates I have come to know – plans that are greater than they might ever dare to imagine for themselves. Perhaps in the end, prison chaplaincy is simply a matter of allowing oneself to be used by God to bring a small light into a great darkness.
Cadet Brian Bobolo, and his lovely wife June, are both a part of the Friends of Christ session. Brian has a quiet, unflappable presence but also has a fine-tuned sense of humour. We are certain that when he is commissioned he will be sorely missed by the inmates and staff at the Remand Centre but whichever corps he and June are assigned to will be equally blessed by their leadership. (Of course, if we are lucky enough to have them stay in Winnipeg I am sure the folks at the Remand Centre would be delighted!)