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Prison ministry includes mercy

By Paula Fournier

01/27/2016

PRINCE ALBERT — “For a person to receive mercy, one has to realize there is brokenness and sin that needs to be forgiven and mercy shown, not just the rigours of justice,” said Rev. Michael Averyt, a Catholic chaplain at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert.

He works alongside Deacon Brad Taylor, caring for the inmates in all areas of the penitentiary. The chaplaincy team also includes Charles Kahumba, a Presbyterian minister, and Imam Mumin, who serves the Muslim population.

Each chaplain ministers from his own faith tradition; however, they also serve those whose faiths are not locally represented. For example, a Jewish chaplain in Ontario sends them updates and information about such things as Kosher diets and upcoming events in the Jewish calendar.

Faith activities in various traditions can include Sunday services, with Bible studies and adult faith formation classes during the week. The chaplain’s daily routine also includes seeing inmates one on one.

Volunteer ministry at the penitentiary is basically one of presence. Volunteers in the Person to Person program (P2P) converse with inmates, play cribbage or other card games when they visit their assigned inmate once a month.

“It’s part of a program to help the inmate have contact with someone in the outside world, someone who is there for them as a person, non-judging, accepting and encouraging,” said Averyt.

A lot of people there want to be good, but they don’t know how, he explained. They come from backgrounds that are horrible beyond belief. Volunteers show by their example that there is another way of living, one that leads to self-fulfilment, happiness, harmony.

“Jesus came not to call the righteous, but the sinners; not those who are whole, but those who are sick. They are people that need the Gospel, some of them are ready to hear it. Sometimes a person has to hit rock bottom before they recognize the need for faith.”

As with twelve step programs, first one has to recognize there is a problem that it is beyond their control and that help is needed from a Higher Power. When the person in need realizes that, we in the church have the responsibility of pointing people toward God.

“I know from experience and being a pastor who has seen the life of others that God does work miracles. So the joy for me is when someone comes into my office and feels comfortable enough to be open, to risk being vulnerable. When they leave the office with hope and a smile, you know that God has touched somebody. To be able to do what you feel called to do is its own joy. But the joy is seeing other people find hope, encouragement and with that a new resolve to straighten out their life, to clean up their act, confident that they can do it.”

The board is trying to branch out in other areas of restorative justice ministry. One program for circles of support and accountability, known as COSA, is designed to help high risk offenders re-integrate into the community. He says there is also a desperate need for support for families’ of inmates.

“It’s not just the inmate that serves time; it’s their wives and children. Many families of inmates move here to Prince Albert.”

Many in today’s society believe the penitentiary system to be centred on punishment, Averyt said. Punishment is not an end in itself. The idea is to correct and re-habilitate and assist the offender’s reintegration back into the community.

One of the challenges facing chaplains is the general public not accepting or supporting previous inmates. Chaplains’ work, he explains, can be destroyed in literally ten minutes. In his experience, it can happen again and again, making the previous inmate feel deceived and write the experience off.

“The people who have been in prison have done their time,” said Averyt. “The challenge to us, made clear by Pope Francis, is that it is our task when inmates are released, to show them mercy, welcome them back like the prodigal son and to help them become what God created them to be.”

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