The passengers in the van were anxious. A man in the back felt a tightness in his chest and couldn’t catch his breath. Was he having a heart attack?
“They know where we are from, right?” asked another passenger.
The driver smiled. “Yeah,” he said reassuringly. “They know where you’re from.”
The passengers were from Dorchester Penitentiary, a medium-security prison in New Brunswick, a Canadian province on the Atlantic coast.
They were going to Petitcodiac Mennonite Church, whose pastor, Gord Driedger, is a chaplain at Dorchester Penitentiary.
Because Dorchester is a “releasing institution” it helps people to be ready to leave institutional life and return to society. As a part of that process, Driedger sets up “escorted temporary absences” so the men can go to places outside the prison. Driedger brings a group to the church two Sundays a month.
“The men aren’t used to being with people outside of the prison,” he said. “Often they are unsure if they can even talk to people. The church becomes the first idea of a safe place for some of them.”
One man who has been in prison for 37 years came to Petitcodiac on a potluck Sunday. His parents, who live a distance away from the prison, have been faithful visitors to their son in the prison. They leapt at the chance to see him in this supervised, escorted visit to the church.
“It was the first time he and his parents have been together outside of the prison in 37 years!” Driedger said. “They shared a meal together in the church, and we felt so privileged to be there and share that experience with them.”
Petitcodiac Mennonite Church has a lengthy relationship with the Dorchester penitentiary. Siegfried Janzen pastored at Petitcodiac from 1985 to 1995 and volunteered at the prison along with many in the congregation. That legacy lives on through the penitentiary’s Siegfried Janzen Award, given to outstanding volunteers.
The congregation also has a long history of supporting the local community. It organizes the town’s food pantry, where local produce is sold for reasonable prices, making organic food available to everyone. The pantry includes a community table where people bring produce to share.
“There are several guys who have amazing gardens in the yard at Dorchester,” Driedger said.
During harvest time, he takes 150 to 200 pounds of vegetables each week from the prison to the pantry.
“It is significant for the men to give back to society by sharing the bounty of their gardens with those who are in need,” he added. “The church is able to help facilitate that and also help people to see their worth and value in the world. . . . Often the hardest thing for men in prison is to be able to find some grace for themselves.”
He recalled a man serving a life sentence, lying in bed one night, unable to sleep and hating himself, with nowhere to belong but prison. He shared with Driedger that it was in that moment he thought about the small church, realizing there was a place he could go and people would love and accept him. Then he was able to sleep.
“The people at PMC have really embraced the role of making these guys just feel at home,” Driedger said. “The congregation is remarkable. The people in the congregation walk alongside the men. They’re not trying to save them. They’re not trying to astound them. They’re just walking with them.
“What makes the church work properly isn’t necessarily the good theology or the strong preaching. It’s the relationships that you have with people. It is the love that you have for each other, and from that, everything else flows.”