Chairs laid out for Bible study group. Photo by Monkey Business Images, via Shutterstock

Volunteers and the future of prison ministry

The following is the fifth and final instalment of a multi-part series detailing the work of Anglicans involved in prison ministry. Read Part 1, Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

In the face of budget cuts to the federal correctional system, many chaplains increasingly work on a volunteer basis. The Rev. Tim Smart, for instance, a prison chaplain at Cowansville Institution in Quebec, is paid for four hours per week, and volunteers equal unpaid time.

The Rev. Peter Huish (deacon) did not renew his contract this past April after 18 years of chaplaincy, but received permission from Correctional Services Canada to continue his work with federal inmates on a voluntary basis. Twice a month, Huish visits correctional institutions “with a band of volunteers, the way I always have, simply because the willingness is there to do it, as part of my life and the life of the volunteers that go with me.

“It’s also something that the guys who we go [visit] at that particular institution are keen to have continue,” he added.

Volunteer help is a major asset to all prison chaplains. On Monday chapel evenings at Cowansville, Smart brings in volunteers from various churches and denominations to meet with prison inmates, sing and pray together, socialize, and engage in Bible study and discussion.

On Friday mornings, volunteers help him with English and French literacy programs for inmates.

“The guys are so appreciative of the volunteers who come in,” Smart said. “They kind of expect paid chaplains to be there, but when somebody comes of their…own volition to spend their Thanksgiving Monday at chapel to talk to [them], to pray with them, to sing with them—this really means a lot.

“Especially for many of the men who no longer have family visiting them because they’ve been cut off…or who have few visits…it means a lot…that they’re not forgotten and…can be treated with some kind of care and interest. That’s all part of the rehabilitative process.”

With the institutional relationship of the church to prison chaplaincy now less direct—a private contractor, Bridges of Canada, currently oversees the hiring and pay of chaplains, while in the past, Anglican dioceses held direct contracts with Correctional Services Canada—volunteers serve as a vital pillar enabling the work of chaplains to continue.

Even so, Huish said that Anglicans tend to be underrepresented among volunteers he works with. As founder of the restorative justice group Communitas, Huish reports every month on activities involving 50 to 60 volunteers working with past and present inmates in the greater Montreal area. Of these volunteers, about six or seven are Anglican.

“It’s not an easy or particularly attractive pursuit for your average pew-sitting Anglican, I think,” Huish said.

Ongoing service and budget cuts, however, mean that the need for volunteers in prison ministry will continue to grow.

Smart encouraged Anglicans to support prison ministry by supporting Anglican chaplains who are part of the national chaplaincy network, and by encouraging volunteers to become involved in the prison system.

“We’ve got prisons in every large and medium-sized town across the country,” Smart said. “Find out who those chaplains are. See if you feel called to be a part of their activities.”

Huish highlighted the need for church members at all levels—up to and including councils and bishops—to learn more about prison ministry to gain a greater appreciation of the work of chaplains. He praised Archbishop and Primate Fred Hiltz as “a very great example of someone who has a heart for that kind of ministry.”

“When we choose our ministers and our leaders,” he added, “I think we need to discern the people who have the right kind of heart, to ensure that the [forms of] ministry that are less popular and less attractive do not get neglected.”

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