When I undertook my Criminology degree, I learned about the unprecedented number of Indigenous women (and men and youth) behind bars in Canada. I learned about cycles of abuse and trauma and what drew people to do desperate things. But I already knew that. I just hadn't dissected my own life yet to understand the similarities and the fine lines we all walk.
As a youth, I was a JD (Juvenile Delinquent). I found camaraderie in gangs, and most of my friends filtered in and out of the 'system' and spent most of their time in Juvey Hall (Juvenile Detention facility), which is what teen-friendly incarceration was called in the 1970s. My friends were mostly Indigenous, mostly living in Foster care, and because of our stark aloneness in the world, where there was little or no understanding of our circumstance in that archaic justice field, we all connected.
My jail time was short, and thankfully, to a greater power, I escaped that life and its obvious consequences. I was gifted a different life, the one of a parent, where my path changed in a split second from being focussed on myself, to being the sole charge of a new life, and at 15, I accepted the responsibility gladly. From this point I understood my separateness from my cohort and knew my time in this life would serve a different purpose as it later did, where I could relate to the experiences of the lonely and outcast, having been one of them myself. The Cross and the Switchblade by the Rev. David Wilkerson was my companion book, and even back then I looked forward to a life of service.
My early life experiences drew me to the study of crime and criminal justice systems (young offenders and youth gangs in particular) and my work at the Elizabeth Fry Society, where I began supervising young offenders in the 1990s as they worked through the community service portions of their sentences. I knew these people, and wanted to reach out to the underrepresented, misunderstood, and lonely, to share compassion, to model for them a different way, to listen intently, and, if they wanted, introduce them to a friend that always walked beside me.
I moved on to continue my work with high-risk populations, many of whom had been in and out of detention throughout their lives. But while my mind was filled with sad statistics, my heart knew compassion, and my Buddhist practice taught me to imagine each person as a five-year-old child and what must have happened in their lives to bring them to the point they were in the present.
Over the years, part of my volunteer work was with Amnesty International, including letter-writing campaigns to support the wrongly or unjustly convicted. My thoughts today continue along that path, now on a deeper level, as I turn towards daily prayer as a prayer partner through Prison Fellowship Canada. As we all pull out 2024 calendars for the new year, I'd like to share with you Prison Fellowship's online calendar that asks for specific prayers when you hover over each day's request. It is an easy way to support prison ministry in Canada, and I hope you will join me here, in service. Happy New Year!
"I was in prison and you came to visit me ... I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
(Matthew 25:36, 40)