“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the Living One. I was dead, and see, I am alive, forever and ever.” (Revelation 1.17-18)
In 1912, the prolific architect William Ridgway-Wilson finished overseeing construction of the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine, in downtown Victoria, BC. In 1913, he completed what is today the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, a short five miles northwest of St. John’s. For many years, these two great buildings were the spiritual centres of my life, ministry, and public service.
From the outside, their similarities are obvious: both are finished with a red brick and stone façade, soaring upward in a modified Gothic style, and include many elements clearly inspired by medieval castles.
Early in my time as a chaplain with BC Corrections, my four-year-old son, Julian, asked me, “Dad, what is the most important thing you do at work?” At the time, he thought it was pretty cool that I worked in a castle.
Whenever we would drive along Wilkinson Road, he would press his little hand against the glass and declare, “There’s the castle where Dad works!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it’s a prison.
He’s not alone in mistaking a beautiful façade for something it’s not. Local folklore claims in the early days of Victoria, tourists would picnic on those same front lawns. Back then, it was called the Colquitz Home for the Criminally Insane, but I’m told that many happy travellers believed they had found the grounds of the Empress Hotel. I’m not sure the staff in those days had the heart to tell them either.
After some thought, I answered Julian. “The most important thing I do is help people not to be afraid. I can’t say I’m always successful, but it is what I attempt.” Prison is a frightening place, no matter who you are, or why you’re there. And for many, leaving prison for life on the outside is just as frightening as being in jail; sometimes, it’s even more frightening.
Hopefully, most of us have little or no direct experience of jail, but fear is something else. It’s part of our common humanity. We have all been afraid at some time, and we recognize that tight, anxious feeling when it rises up inside us. Over time, that feeling can imprison our spirit just as surely as an iron cell, holding us fast in places that have long ago ceased to be life-giving. Even the most beautiful façade can’t make up for that.
“Do not be afraid,” says the Living One to a community gripped by fear. “I am the first and the last.” Time and again, scripture invites us to look closely at ourselves, and to face the things we fear most. God wants us to be free, and the love of God and love of one another is the key. Transformed by these loves, our fears can become our greatest teachers.
If there is a fear in your life today that’s kept you from being truly free, be assured the Living One has been there before, is with you now, and will never leave your side. You can trust the love of the Living One to give you the courage to be free. May your journey through Advent be a blessing. Shalom.