For more than a decade, I was a public servant with BC Corrections. As the chaplain at the province’s maximum-security prison in Victoria, I encountered inmates and staff from every background and walk of life. Often the only things we held in common were the stones and steel of a very rough prison, and our cloaked and veiled humanity.
In 2013, at the age of 45, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of early-onset prostate cancer. My boys were one and three at the time, and when the doctor broke the news to Kristy and me, all I could think was, “If this goes badly, my sons won’t even remember me. I’ll be a picture in a frame somewhere.” The thought was excruciating, and terrifying.
The week before I was to begin medical leave from the jail, to receive surgery and treatment, I began to tell my clients/inmates and staff what was happening and that I would be away for several months. On Friday, the day before my medical leave began, several Indigenous inmates asked me to stop by their living unit, last thing before I left.
When I did, they took me into a recreation room containing a large, heavy, ping-pong table bolted to the floor and asked me to sit on it. They spoke gently to me about courage, about faith, and about our friendship. We talked about how we each had something out of place within us, powerful and destructive, that would likely kill us if we didn’t seek treatment and healing.
Then someone told me he was going to sing for me a Warrior Song and a Healing Song. Several men began to drum on the heavy tabletop where I sat, cross-legged, and the singer began his song. In a place that is never, ever quiet, within seconds you could hear a pin drop as the sacred song echoed off the stones and the steel.
Once finished, the songs hung in the air, it seemed, long after the drumming and voices had ceased. As the silence settled, we hugged each other, and the cell block returned to its usual racket of loud talk, door slams and televisions. I went to the Control Station, dropped off my keys, and left the jail at peace and with new courage, to face whatever might come. Before any medical treatment had commenced my healing had already begun.
Sometimes grace surprises us. It pours out of an unexpected place, abundant and generous, or through seemingly hard and unlikely persons – like water flowing from a stone. It’s humbling when it happens: a reminder that often we are the ones who close ourselves off to encountering God in persons and places until we receive the gift of “eyes to see and ears to hear,” as Jesus would say.
The experience of being ministered to by a group of inmates who had so many reasons to hate, dislike, or be indifferent to me and what I represent, as a white Anglican priest, was so powerful that it still makes me emotional today. Their unexpected gift of hope, compassion and generosity of spirit, abundant and reconciling, drew us all closer together in the years that followed my return. There is an endless capacity for dignity, forgiveness and compassion that resides in the human heart.
Sometimes grace surprises us. Sometimes healing is roughly delivered. But, with willing hearts and open minds, Christ can use the simplest, most common-place ingredients to produce sacred space, peace and life abundant.