The Deacon's Bench

You never know where a deacon will pop up.

This item about a deacon in prison ministry comes from a newspaper in Canada, and columnist Peter Duffy. It illustrates the surprising and vitally important work deacons are doing beyond the walls of the church:

Silly of me, I know, but since this man spends part of his working week in prison, I was half expecting him to have “the smell” about him — the edgy, acrid, despairing aroma that permeates life behind bars.

But he doesn’t.

Instead, Brian Smith turns out to be a cheerful, soft-spoken individual with more of hope than hopelessness about him.

Brian’s a permanent deacon of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax.

He’s a tall, sturdy individual who lives with his family in Dartmouth but who travels to Truro to serve the parish of the Church of Immaculate Conception. And part of that service includes three visits a week to the nearby female penitentiary.

It was only recently that I came to hear about his prison ministering and I wondered about his experiences. I was curious about what it’s like to be a man of God, trying to connect to those who’ve stolen from us, hurt us, led us astray with drugs and other vices and, in some cases, killed us.

In all, Brian has spent a dozen years ministering in prisons. For four years, he was full time at the correctional facility in Burnside and now he’s chaplain to the Nova Institute for Women, the federal prison here in Truro. He visits the 70 female inmates three times a week.

“You can look into the eyes of the women in there and see their loss and sorrow, see their loneliness . . .” He pauses, deep in reflection. “Some of them are just like frightened animals,” he says at last, “especially when they’re first taken there.”

From all he’s seen and experienced over the years, Brian feels incarceration is harder on women than men, particularly because of the separation it represents from kith and kin.

Not only that, he says, but many women, even though they may have committed a crime, are more likely to be the real victim, in some way. Brian reminds me that many women are abused at home or in a relationship, or are forced into addiction or some other vice by a relative or a loved one.

“It’s much more emotional to be among women (inmates), no matter what their crime,” he relates. “I think I love each and every one of them like they’re your sister or grandmother.”

The message Brian tries to take with him into prison is one of hope.

“I like to think I’m giving them some kind of hope for a better life, for a better tomorrow, for them and their children.”

It doesn’t always work, he admits. Some inmates will never be rehabilitated or feel remorse.

He shrugs.

“You just have to love them and keep on trying to support them in any way you can.”

“It must be scary, working with rapists and murderers,” I opine.

He shakes his head. “I’ve yet to be frightened,” he says. I don’t feel threatened; I feel safe. You get very close to inmates.”

I ask him if he’s ever had any bad experiences. What I’m fishing for is a juicy story about him being attacked by some murderer or other low-life, something physical. Instead, what he offers me is something spiritual.

He tells me that part of his prison duties is to give bereavement notices to inmates.

He remembers one middle-aged inmate whose son had died violently. When Brian broke the news, the man fell to pieces. “He felt himself trapped,” he explains. “He wanted to be with his son. He felt he’d let him down because he wasn’t there to be with him, that he’d failed as a parent.”

Brian remembers the heartbroken inmate kicking and screaming and crying. As with so much of life behind bars, Brian found it tremendously draining.

Just how tough is it in prison these days?

Brian tells me 90 per cent of inmates are there because of some addiction.

“The attitude of inmates, when they’re together or in a group of other inmates, they have one personality: big tough guys who flex their muscles.”

“They have another side?” I interrupt.

Oh yes, says the deacon.

“When you take them into the chapel, or in the office and shut the door, they…go back in time; they remember when they were children.”

They remember being taken to church, playing while mass was being held. They think back to some of the things their parents and grandparents tried to teach them.

“Some of the big tough guys get really teary eyed,” says Brian. “They feel like a failure; that they’ve let someone down.”

He shakes his head sadly. “They don’t recognize that they let themselves down.”

There’s much more at the newspaper link. Let’s keep Brian Smith and men like him in our prayers. Most of us try to do God’s work. These guys really are are doing it.