In our Social Ministry Year, we students were to find a social services program of some sort to volunteer at for the year. I went to Alpha House, a shelter and detox centre for those people on drugs or alcohol. Tracy went to the Mennonite Central Committee Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) and became trained to sit in circles with high-risk offenders (sexual offenders) who had served their jail time and now were living in the community.
As you can imagine, it takes a certain type of person who can sit in circle with these high-risk offenders and be a support to their journey after their jail time. In these Sundays following Easter, Symons Valley UC is exploring what social justice means - what the Bible says, what Jesus has to say about justice and how we can act justly in this world of ours. Realizing that Tracy has a unique perspective on criminal behaviour and the reintegration into society of someone who has serve their time but has committed a crime that can never be forgotten, I invited her to preach this last Sunday for SVUC. Because we are both in solo ministry, I offered to do a pulpit swap - which was loads of fun because St. Thomas UC is my home congregation and it was a like a big homecoming when I was there on Sunday.
Tracy's full sermon is below, but first, here are some words from a person that Tracy supports in Circle:
When we come into CoSA our lives are in the bottom of a barrel. In the years of dealing with these wonderful people that didn't know us from a hole in the ground. They sit and read about us from the numerous reports that have been gathered. For most of us they are very disturbing and should show them that they need to run away and find better people to visit with. But out of the goodness of their hearts they sit and talk to us. For me CoSA has been the most wonderful experience in my life. I've been pulled from the ashes to be resurrected into a new man. For me the only word I can use that sums up CoSA is "HOPE."
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3
Sermon by the Reverend Tracy Robertson
Our scripture this morning can be read and interpreted as service well-pleasing to God. It’s a short scripture and it makes total sense, doesn’t it? “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” But do we really do that? We might think about those being tortured; especially the victims of criminals. That’s fairly easy to do, isn’t it? We can imagine what people go through when they’ve been offended against. We don’t particularly like going there or dwelling in that place, but walking in the shoes of the victims is something we often do. And it’s easy to pour out our love for humanity towards the victims of the most heinous crimes; we pray for them and we volunteer for organizations that help victims and their families work through the trauma with hope that they might one day live lives of completeness, safety, and happiness.
But do we imagine being in prison when we see someone sentenced after being found guilty for theft, abuse to animals, murder, or sexual offences? Do we really remember them? Those who are considered unlovable for what they’ve done to their victims. Those who harm the most vulnerable in our society. Those who literally destroy lives and trust. We might quickly include these individuals in our prayers but, let’s face it, it’s very tough to find real and true compassion for those who offend against others.
I’m here today to share with you some of my experiences with just these types of people. I’m here not to discount the horrific experiences that victims of crimes have experienced and suffered from. I’m definitely not here to say what the offenders have done is okay or should be forgotten. Absolutely not. But what I am here to have you consider is the undeniable fact that God’s love is unconditional. And it’s unconditional to everyone; no matter what they’ve done or who they’ve hurt.
We’re in the Easter season and as resurrection people, we Christians believe to our cores that new life can come out of death. We know that new life comes every spring after a very long winter where the earth seems dead. The Easter story – the resurrection story – reminds us that with God the impossible is, at best, a slight inconvenience. The impossible becomes possible. The brief time of Jesus’ death is a mere blip in the ongoing story of God bringing new life and hope into situations that seem well beyond it. Jesus can restore life when all hope, when all possibility, is gone. God can restore life when all hope, when all possibility, is gone. It’s simply grasping and accepting the basic truth of the Easter message: that God, not death, has the final word, and God’s word is a resounding “Yes!”
The Easter message reassures us all that we all have our own resurrection moments throughout our lives. Moments where the impossible becomes possible. Where our eyes are opened to a new way of looking at things.
For me, one of my biggest resurrection moments I had personally was when I started volunteering with a social justice group out of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) called Circles of Support and Accountability – or CoSA. This is a program that supports and holds accountable people (usually men) coming out of prison who have committed the most heinous of crimes – they’re sexual offenders. Now, I have to be clear – I didn’t start volunteering with CoSA because I wanted to specifically work with sexual offenders, nor did I have any plan to stay there longer than the 10 months that was required as part of my ministry training. But this is what resurrection stories are all about, right? The unexpected being born out of the most unsuspecting of places.
The offenders are interviewed up to a year before they’re released from jail to ensure they’re in the program for the right reasons because many will try to manipulate the system just to make themselves look good to the courts. Once they’re vetted and released, CoSA is there to pick them up from prison, help them with housing and finding a job, and above all, hold them accountable to their court-mandated conditions and strategies towards no more victims.
The guys meet with their circle and they become the core member of that circle. The circle is made up of a coordinator from CoSA and 2-4 volunteers who have been trained and educated on being a part of the core member’s support team. They meet with the guys right after their release and continue to meet with them weekly to offer support and hold them accountable to their past behaviour and strategies towards no more victims.
One of my resurrection moments came on my first day at MCC. I arrived and the very first thing the coordinator told me was that I was going to meet and interview one of the core members. All the coordinator told me was that I was going into the empty office down the hall with this man, alone, and that she wasn’t going to tell me anything about him except to say that I would be safe. He told me his story – in great detail – and the most remarkable thing took place. I found myself being able to separate this man from his offences. It was almost as if I was putting his crimes into a box and placing the box up high on a shelf and then turning my attention to him, as a human being in need, to pastorally care for him. I intentionally felt as though was I looking at him through God’s eyes; through God’s filter; experiencing God’s unconditional love and care towards this man. I was definitely not forgetting his horrendous offences, by any means. But I did feel what I imagine God feels towards all of us, even the worst criminals - and that is always unconditional love and hope. It was a remarkable experience that I can only describe as a resurrection or re-birth moment for me.
At the debrief with the coordinator after the interview, I was sharing that revelation with her. She said that not everyone can be a volunteer for CoSA because most people cannot separate the offence from the person. And I found that in my 10 months there, meeting a number of core members at circle meetings and social activities, as well as visiting prisoners in the Drumheller and Bowden institutions, I came to truly appreciate these at-risk people and felt as though I had been blessed with being resurrected into a whole new way of looking at all people through God’s eyes. It was a resurrection moment for me and it affected me so profoundly that I’m still volunteering with CoSA to this day.
As some of you know, my experience working with sexual offenders led me to my first Ministry Call which was Chaplain of the Calgary Young Offender Centre. I was there for 3 years. As you can perhaps imagine, there are many resurrection stories that are shared by individuals who have lost their way so much that they end up in jail. Now, the reality is that many criminals are what we call habitual criminals. They enjoy their criminal lifestyles and will continue to move in and out of jail their entire lives. But then there are those for whom jail is their rock bottom and they want to make a change but have no idea how to go about doing that. Their only connections outside of jail are gangs and other criminals. Many tell them to find new friends, get a job, learn a trade. Some even say to them that if they’d only find Jesus, they’d be fine. Well, it’s not that simple.
When your only family consists of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins in gangs, how do you leave? Where would you go? Who would support you during the transition time? Who’s going to help you find a place to live, buy groceries, or get a job? There are many of us today who continue to struggle to find employment and we’re not coming out of jail with literally nothing, wondering where we’re sleeping that night or how we’re going to get a bite to eat. How long will it be before someone who has nothing reverts back to stealing and other criminal behaviour to survive and cope?
There was a young man who I got to know at the young offender centre. He was a violent offender and had killed someone by stabbing them over 100 times. He’d very often come to the chapel to get some pastoral care from me and share with me his story. When he was 8 years old, he was told by his family that he’s now old enough to decide whether he will be a member of the crypt gang or the blood gang. It was a hard decision because he knew enough that if he chose crypt, all his friends who were bloods would instantly be his enemies – and visa versa. What a horrible position to put an 8 year-old in, right? He came to the chapel one day and showed me a picture his family sent him of him as a little boy proudly holding a fish he had caught. I asked him if he remembered that moment and he said yes because later that night, his family got him high and drunk for the first time. It was a sort of right of passage.
Another young person told me about her home life where her mom locked her little brother in the pantry because he was misbehaving. The mom totally forgot about the brother because she became altered on some kind of drug that night and, as a result, that little boy spent the entire night and part of the next day in that pantry.
Each time I hear people’s stories – anyone’s stories – I feel privileged. I’m honoured to be able to hold that story because I believe that through hearing people’s stories, I move closer to God and God’s unconditional love. I experience moments of resurrection and new life when I’m trusted and seen as safe. And when people share with me their resurrection stories; it’s a wondrous moment.
People ask me why I have such a passion for at-risk individuals, particularly criminals and those who have offended against the most vulnerable in our society. They wonder why I would ‘waste my time’ with such people – after all, those people should be locked up forever. The reasons why I have such a passion are because the reality is that, in Canada, most criminals will be released at some point whether we believe they’ve paid their debt to society or not. Quite simply, I’ve chosen to be a part of the solution to no more victims. That means hands-on support of the criminals so that they, first and foremost, have people who will hold them accountable and help them practice their strategies that will keep them stay out of jail and most importantly, keep the public safe, and secondly, it’s so they finally have someone in their lives that believe they’re able to do it. 80% of those in the CoSA program don’t re-offend. Without the program, the chance of re-offence is almost guaranteed.
My motivation is to be the face of God in these individual’s lives. I believe they need to know that they are loved unconditionally and by modelling that care and compassion, they, too, can begin to believe that they’re capable of care and compassion as well. Sexual offenders can never be cured but what they can do is have a resurrection moment where they come to the realization that what they’ve done was truly wrong. You see, almost all sexual offenders come from traumatized childhoods where they’ve been abused themselves and where they truly believe that the horrific environments they grew up in are normal; that everyone grows up that way. Everyone has an aunt who forces them to do unspeakable things. Everyone goes year after year without celebrating a birthday. Everyone belongs to a gang. Everyone thinks that killing someone is fair revenge for being wronged. Everyone thinks it’s appropriate to have someone under 10 as your girlfriend. These are all normal beliefs for many criminals and until they learn that the beliefs they have are, in fact, inappropriate and very wrong, nothing will change. I’ve chosen to help them with that so that perhaps the world can be a safer and better place.
You know, one guy that I’m on a circle for has been struggling with changing his ways for the better part of his life. He has been in and out of prison most of his life. When the guys are released and join CoSA, the first thing we do is have a circle meeting where a member of the High Risk Offender police join the meeting and all the core member’s conditions are read out loud. That helps us, as support people, keep the guys accountable and ensure they’re not taking part in any behaviours that will land them back in jail. This guy I’m supporting right now had many court-mandated conditions and has to keep a physical copy of those conditions on his person at all times and even when the paperwork has been reduced in size, it takes up most of his wallet when folded up – that’s how many conditions he has. When we started going through his conditions at that first meeting, he was angry. Angry that he was being so controlled and he couldn’t do what he wanted. Angry that he had to wear a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and check in with the police on a weekly basis. What we said to him at the time was that most of his conditions were things that those of us who were not sexual offenders lived by on a daily basis – the conditions literally described our lifestyles. Things like avoiding drugs and excessive alcohol, not visiting places of prostitution, avoiding pornographic sites on the internet; for some, specifically, child pornography. Some conditions were a bit harder because they have to, at all times, avoid children under 16 or 18 years of age, school yards, play grounds, daycares, parks, rec centres, movie theatres, etc. – anywhere where children may gather. The reason for that is because if they see something they like, they might start on a downward spiral towards re-offending. It’s tough work, but this particular guy slowly began to realize that these conditions were in place for his own good and eventually, he realized that they were in place for the good of society and any potential victims. I remember the day he had his resurrection moment when the light bulb went off in his head and he started to finally understand what he had done in the past and that what he had been doing to others was exactly what had been done to him as a child. He never wanted to be responsible for instilling the same trauma in other children as he had experienced, and when he realized that he had, it was a turning point for him.
That’s why I do the work I do. That’s why I have a passion for these folks. I believe in my heart, in my core, that everyone is worth saving. Everyone is worth it simply because they’re worth it in the eyes of God, and, of course, it’s worth it to stop the cycle of victimization.
That’s what it means to remember those in prison as if we were in prison with them. That’s what leads to the mutual love described in our scripture this morning. Now, I have absolutely no expectation that anyone will do the work that I’m doing or hang out with sexual offenders, but perhaps, there may be a bit more understanding for the support I’m offering these folks and perhaps there may be a bit more mutual love for all God’s children – even those we don’t believe should deserve God’s unconditional love, because the reality is that God’s gonna love ‘em despite us thinking God shouldn’t.
What God offers can be offered at any time, in any situation. In a world overpowered by racism, xenophobia, terrorism, and the like, it’s easy to give up hope. It’s precisely in the face of this that God challenges – almost dares – us to read the stories of new life and new hope like the many stories in the gospels. How can we give in when God is so loudly proclaiming life in the midst of chaos? Hope oozes from scripture passages like the one we read today; we can’t help but share it with others. It’s never too late. It’s simply grasping the basic truth of the Easter message: that God, not death, has the final word, and God’s word is a resounding “Yes!”
There are resurrection moments in all our lives when all of a sudden, we find ourselves “named” and called by Christ. It’s a moment filled with ‘a-ha’. A moment so mysterious that it can only be called a ‘God moment’. A moment that runs into that wondrous feeling that cannot be contained; it’s something we automatically want to share with others. As much as we sometimes don’t want to, or have the energy to, admit it, there is always hope and as resurrection people, we Christians must continue to believe that hope comes from God’s ‘Yes!’. May we have the courage to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, sharing the astonishing resurrection moments and messages we experience so that others, too, may find hope and new life.
Let us pray… God of resurrection joy, too often the world wants us to look at things dimly, pessimistically, as if there is no hope. There are so many reasons to give up, O God. Help us not to do that. Help us to know that in the midst of all the despair we encounter in daily newscasts, you are indeed present, daring to bring hope in the midst of it all. In the midst of it all, you come to us, and in acts such as raising Jesus from death, and calling us by name, you proclaim that your word is not “no” but is a never-ending and life affirming “Yes!” Thank you. Amen.