Gentleness behind bars

In the Image

March 23, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 6
Ed Olfert | Columnist
(Photo by Saad Chaudhry/Unsplash)

On Thursday mornings, I drive an hour north to the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, a federal institution in Prince Albert.

I am escorted through the belly of the beast to the chapel area. Inmates begin to arrive. I am there, at the chaplain’s request, in support of a program geared towards healing injured spirits. It feels like an advanced course, not one to offer men only recently arrived, who may be restless, defensive or angry. No, this program asks for defensive postures to be lowered.

Someone has turned the chairs around so we meet in the rear of the room. That’s where the video equipment is. Somehow, that feels significant. This course is not overtly Christian. It is designed to comfortably fold into whatever expression of spirituality the guys bring.

On one day, we see a video focused on the inner child. The presenter in the video, Robin Casarjiran, does a fine job of encouraging her hearers to engage their wounded inner child in a manner that feels non-threatening. Over and over again, the guys are reminded: “Be gentle with yourself.”

Another video is about anger, another addresses the hard topic of forgiveness. Always, the message is about compassion. “If you find opening that door is simply too frightening,” says Casarjian, “then gently close it again. But affirm yourself for having approached that door, and know that when you’re ready, you will go there again.”

In 35 years of relating to offenders, I’ve glimpsed the power of offering blessing into lives that have received shockingly little positive affirmation. It makes both the time and expense spent to be present on Thursdays seem like a bargain. Vulnerable ones everywhere live within a greater measure of peace when broken people are blessed.

Something else happens on those Thursday mornings; I encounter the Christ.

Certainly, I encounter the Christ on a Sunday morning in my usual pew. That is also a warm place to be, a time when it’s good to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. Perhaps there are also limitations.

When worship begins with announcements, then a prayer, then one or two familiar hymns, a sharing time and on down through the order, this is not bad worship. It is good.

But consider this. By the time we have experienced that version of worship twice, or a hundred times, perhaps blinders are sliding up beside our faces. A thought creeps in, perhaps, that encounters of God are connected to this order, this language, this place. And perhaps, with those blinders, we miss less traditional holy encounters.

Perhaps that’s why facing backwards at Sask Pen feels so exciting. There isn’t God language, unless the guys choose to use it. There aren’t expectations that guys will respond in this way or that. There aren’t right answers. There is simply a freedom to be.

After the video, the guys are invited to respond how they wish. The conversation is bright, hopeful.

One man, possibly with brain cells damaged from lifelong addictions, rambles on at length. His narrative is certainly affirming, but he circles round and round, starting and ending in places that just don’t connect for me.

Another sums up that day’s video, and warmly includes the words of the previous speaker as proof that this was indeed a holy lesson.

In decades of leading adult discussions, I have fielded many comments from “out there” and have struggled to bring them into a useful context. That Thursday, the Christ was present and showed me the way.

Ed Olfert ( gives thanks for holiness lived.

Read more In the Image columns:
Dump truck affirmation
Welding a Mennonite reality
‘Stella makes a difference’
‘Bring your best self’
Modelling another way to healing

(Photo by Saad Chaudhry/Unsplash)

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