It has been about 15 years now since the first night I walked through the doors of Central United Church. It is an old sandstone church built at the turn of the century, situated right in the center of downtown Calgary. In June of 2016 I was fortunate enough to take over the evening service when Pastor Wayne retired.
To back up just a bit, I have to tell you that I am a recovering alcoholic who just celebrated 27 years in recovery. I was working with a young man who called me and said, “Peter, I have found our church.” He went on to tell me about the recovery service at Central. We agreed to meet the next week and attend the service together.
As I walked in that night, I was greeted at the door by on older gentleman with one arm and a patch on one eye. He was warm, friendly and welcomed us with a hug. As I walked into the old sanctuary, a sense of peace came over me; somehow, I felt I was at home. The band was practicing, there were many people in the pews. As they say, the rest is history. I have been attending faithfully every Sunday evening since.
My passion is to connect with struggling addicts and alcoholics. This is an area in which I have spent the last 25 years of my life working, as a person of faith, as a volunteer, and for the past seven years with the Calgary Drug Treatment Court.
A few years after I first attended the service, I started to chair AA meetings in the Calgary Young Offenders Center (CYOC). This was one of most meaningful opportunities I have ever had. It was an opportunity to see the justice system from the other side. What I found for the most part was not a bunch of bad boys, but a bunch of boys who had done bad things.
The AA meetings gave me an opportunity to explore their backgrounds and their thoughts on faith and it opened many doors to share God’s unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness for each of them.
This was a place I learned so much about life as they see it. Many of the young men taught me about trust, determination, their culture, and acceptance. Each time I attended was an opportunity to teach on many of life’s issues, and the role their Creator has in their lives.
I soon learned that I could visit and mentor these teens one on one. After getting the appropriate clearances, a young man was assigned to me. It was my first experience mentoring in a jail. He was a Muslim boy about 16 years old who was serving some time for repeated property offences. Our conversations covered many topics but always came back to faith. He taught me so much about his faith, and he loved chatting to this Christian guy. For a few years after his release would still come to me for spiritual guidance. He said, “You are more real and will tackle problems with honesty.” He is still doing well. He is close to 30 now and has moved on in his life.
Another teenager who came into my life in the jail at the age of 16 was Adam. I believe God brought us together for a reason. I first met Adam at an AA meeting in CYOC. He was the last one into the room that night. He was not happy he was there, and quite frankly looked like a real mess. Throughout the meeting our eyes would meet and there seemed to be something there. When it was his turn to speak, he said, “I can’t stand the thought of living my life sober.” That was it; there was no more. At the end of the meeting he came up to me and asked if I could stay for a visit. I said, “For sure, that’s why I am here,” and he looked at me strangely.
He was telling me about his life, how he felt abandoned by his parents, his step-dad was mean to him, and he just didn’t want to conform. I asked him if he had any faith – he said, “Do you mean in God?” I said, “Yes, of course” and he replied, “I don’t know.” I felt great about that answer as he didn’t say no.
A little while later, as he was in tears telling me more about the hurts in his life, I asked him, “Do you ever pray.” He said, “Of course, and last night when I was brought back in here and put in my cell I got on my knees and prayed to God that he would send someone to talk to me.” He stopped, he looked up and me and said, “Wow… and you are here. Ask me that first question again about God. Yes, I believe in God.” That was the beginning of a changed life, a life that he worked very hard on.
The piece that everyone needs to understand is this. Earlier that day, I was having a particularly bad time. I knew it was my night to be at CYOC but because of my mood I didn’t want to go. A still small voice in my head kept telling me I needed to be there. The voice said, “There is likely someone who needs you.” All afternoon I fought with myself about going. The still small voice won, and I went. Do you suppose that still small voice was God telling me that I was needed? I believe it was. Adam believes his prayers were answered.
After that evening, I got him going to Chapel, he got involved in Bible study, he even sought out a roommate who did Bible study with him. He was serving a lengthy sentence but when it was completed, he never returned to jail. He had been to jail a dozen times before this. He and I became quite close and after his release I mentored him and his dad in the community. Adam is doing well, living in BC and chats with me at least weekly.
That first night we met, he went to shake my hand as I was leaving, and I pulled him into a hug. He started to sob and cried for some time while holding me in a hug. When he pulled himself together, he looked at me and said, “That is the first time any adult in my life has cared enough to give me a hug.” Then he had me crying. I now give hugs away quite freely.
Prison ministry has given me so much more than I have given to the boys and men I have worked with. It has given me an opportunity to see people who are incarcerated for doing bad things, and to learn that they are not bad people. For the most part, addiction has contributed to the crimes and without exception they have had trauma in their lives, sometimes unspeakable trauma.
A number of years ago, we got permission to take our ministry team into CYOC and we conducted two services back to back on a Saturday evening. As they would only allow so many youth to be together at one time, we did two services. The youth had to sign up to go, so everyone who attended wanted to be there. It was amazing to see these boys (ages 12 to 18) interested in taking part, singing praise and worship music, and hearing our stories.
Prison ministry has allowed me to share God’s unconditional love for each and everyone of them in a non-threatening way. I have been able to build relationships that last long after their release. Many choose to attend our regular recovery service. I believe God is working overtime in jails, which is where Jesus would be if he were with us today.
A relationship has been developed with the Chaplain at the Bowden Penitentiary. A number of years ago, he brought a couple of inmates down to our service on a Sunday evening. The inmates had earned escorted day passes and our service is where they chose to go. About every two weeks or so uniformed guards will show up with an inmate or two to take part in the service. It is very gratifying to see them come and enjoy. The rest of the congregation (many who had been incarcerated in the past) accept them and welcome them with open arms.
The outreach of our ministry team is to street people, incarcerated people, people that want to be in recovery and those that are. Our message most Sunday nights is about one of the steps in AA – and how each of the steps comes right out of the Bible. It is a simple format and it works. We have one of the best praise and worship bands, the “Cracked Pots,” that set the mood for the night, always uplifting, often some old rock and roll turned into praise music.
For those of you who might be thinking of a prison ministry, I encourage you to do it. It is rewarding and fulfilling and there are men and women in jail praying to have a visit from someone. Jail is a lonely and scary place for many and your visit, your kind words, and encouragement will help them cope. It may help them make decisions that will change their lives for ever.