Wednesday 10 October 2012

Cutting Prison Chaplains

The Harper Government claims to be acting in the best interests of taxpayers by cancelling contracts for 49 part-time chaplains in federal prisons, 18 of whom are non-Christian.  That leaves federal institutions served by full-time chaplains, all of whom but one are Christian.  At the same time, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is quoted as saying: “However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”  So, there is no preferential religious treatment unless you happen to be Christian.
Supporters of this move have invoked the image of chaplains in the Canadian Forces who serve a multitude of faith groups and the important activity of a significant number of volunteer groups providing prison ministry.  In the first instance the comparison breaks down because Canadian Forces personnel, while not on deployment, are generally free to leave military bases (where most of them do not live anyway) to seek out the spiritual guidance that is appropriate to them.  It’s hard to imagine the Minister increasing the number of passes so incarcerated Wiccans and Sikhs can attend rituals.  In the second instance, the existence of volunteer groups is a red herring.  The question is not whether citizen groups are willing to step into the gap left by government policy failure.  The question is the legitimacy of creating that gap in the first place.
I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are chaplains in various institutional settings.  It is no slight to them to observe that, beyond basic human empathy, they are not equipped to provide spiritual counsel in other traditions.  Offering that sort of resource demands far more than simply accepting the right of the other person to hold their beliefs: it demands a level of personal investment and commitment as well.  Furthermore, how can this move not increase the already ferocious work-load of the current chaplains?  Presumably, those 49 part-timers were not just sitting around drinking tea but were dealing with real people. 
I would not be surprised to discover that studies have been done measuring the positive impact of qualified spiritual counsel on the successful rehabilitation of inmates and their reintegration in society.  After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?  Having people leave prison able to respond to life’s pressures in more constructive and socially acceptable ways and perhaps more integrated into communities that can help them in their new life.  Of course, in matters of prisons the Harper government has shown a remarkable resistance to evidence-based decision-making.   Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, in defending the expansion of prisons in the omnibus bill, dismissed statistics of declining crime rates in favour of a more ideologically driven response.  So, chances are that studies showing the impact of spiritual care in prisons would be rejected if they didn’t meet the Minister’s agenda.  But there is significant anecdotal evidence, stories of people who turned their lives around at least in part because of connecting or reconnecting with their spiritual traditions.
Federal prison inmates, perhaps understandably, receive little public sympathy.   They are often seen as having put themselves outside that circle of important civil rights the rest of us enjoy.  Some people object to the government funding any sort of religious activity at all.  These are questions that can be debated.  At issue, however, is whether or not convicts have lost the fundamental civil right of freedom of religion.  If they have not lost the right can the government, which is holding them, avoid its obligations to provide necessary resources?  They will eventually leave prison: why discard a relatively low-cost part of the successful rehabilitation process?  This apparently all started when the federal prisons in British Columbia sought to hire a Wiccan.  We know that Minister Toews doesn’t like the idea of the government hiring a Wiccan (“witch”) to conduct ceremonies in a prison because he’s said so.  You and I don’t have to like it either.  The issue is not whether we agree with the religious convictions of our neighbours (including those in prison) but whether we support the civil rights of all in a multi-cultural society that cannot be taken away simply because the government doesn’t approve of a particular faith expression. 
The cuts to part-time chaplains are estimated to save about $1.3 million.  We can expect far more than that to be spent in the inevitable Charter challenge.  Meanwhile, over at Foreign Affairs they’re getting ready to launch a new $5 million Office of Religious Freedom.   It’s a grand thing to lecture other nations about something which we find so challenging to implement.   

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Sometimes the things we are most grateful for come as a total surprise.  Have you ever had that experience?  You thought that something would happen in one way – and you were totally okay with that.  But then something different happened.  Something you never expected.  Something that changes life for the better in ways you could never have imagined.  That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving.  During our service today we’ve been invited to think of the one thing we are most thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.  Our guide has been that story from Luke about the healing of the lepers.  I’ve always thought that story was a bit rough.  After all, the nine lepers did exactly what Jesus told them to do.  They went off rejoicing to show themselves to the priest so they could return to living in the community.  Imagine if we lived in a world – or even a community – where everyone who claims to believe in Jesus did exactly what he told us to do!  Wouldn’t that be great?  But the guy who gets the praise is someone who does something different.  He returns to thank Jesus.  He is said to have been “made well”.  The others are “healed” of their leprosy.  That’s pretty significant.  He is healed and made well.  Something more.  So, while it’s great for us to do what Jesus asks of us, the question is, can we do more?  Can we find in ourselves that sincere gratitude that means we have been made well?  That’s what we’ve been looking at today.

            As many of you know I was nominated for the position of Moderator of the United Church of Canada.  That in itself is a huge honour.  As the weeks and months passed, leading up to the General Council meeting, more and more nominees were added until there were fifteen of us.  A record number!  A couple of those folks I have known for decades; some others were acquaintances; some were names I recognized and others were strangers.  So I could claim to know four or five of the fifteen.  Tops. But a very strange thing happened.  Our General Council staff in Toronto arranged for a couple of video conference calls.  Each lasted over an hour as we shared questions and learned stuff it was an important for a might-be moderator to know.
         Midway through the process – let’s say April – we were told that the quilting group in a United Church in the Ottawa area was preparing stoles for us.  The idea was that, since there was such an overwhelming number of nominees, we were to wear the stoles during General Council as a form of identification.  That way the commissioners would know who to button hole to ask questions.  And, oh yes, “you can keep them to wear after General Council.” I confess my first thought was, “Yeah, right.  I’m going to wear a reminder of loooosing.  NOT”

            Anyway, we made the trek to Ottawa and a surprising change began to take shape.  This group of strangers began to draw together.  It was quite unusual.  I’ve been part of election and selection processes before.  Not as high pressure or high stakes as this.  But still, I’ve never seen a group of people who could be seen as competing for the same thing, draw so closely together.  I’m sure a psychologist might have a fancy explanation for our experience but to me it was clear evidence of the action of God the Holy Spirit!  This love thing is real!

            I cannot recall a time when I came so close to a group of relative strangers so quickly.  So close that, by voting day, most of us had switched to wanting the best for all the others.  So close that we could support the election of any of our fellows.  So close that, when names were dropped off after the first two ballots I was crying tears of real grief for the pain of these friends I had not had two weeks before.

            Something happened.  Something miraculous.  Something wondrous and totally unexpected.  In keeping with our gospel lesson we might say that a competitive – potentially divisive and destructive - election process was healed into a true experience of human bonding and community.  One that changed a group of strangers scattered from coast-to-coast-to-coast into a genuine community of love and support.  That changed an incredibly emotion-packed journey into something good and for which I am incredibly grateful.  This Thanksgiving, can you recall that sort of gift in your life?  Have you given thanks for it?
            Oh yeah, those stoles.  We’re now known in some church circles as the “Red Stole Club” and I wear mine gratefully as a reminder of a totally unexpected and unearned experience of the love of God made real in God’s people.