Rev. John de Vries began his ministry career as a church pastor in Regina, Sask., where he served from 1972 until 1975. For the next 40 years of his pastoral career, he would be involved in chaplaincy in a variety of ways.
He notes that ever since his days in seminary, he was compelled by Christ’s call to reach out to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:35-40). During his years with the Christian Reformed church in Regina, de Vries was introduced to prison ministry in the Regina jail through his friendship with a local Lutheran pastor and chaplain.
Recognizing that prisoners are included in “the least of these” and seeing a need, de Vries eventually applied to be the chaplain of a federal penitentiary in Laval, Que. When he began serving there in 1975, he became the first CRC chaplain to enter prison ministry.
Around the same time that he began his work in Laval, de Vries joined two national boards related to prison ministry: the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, and the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy in the Correctional Service of Canada. He is still a member of both committees, and he also serves on several provincial, municipal, and denominational boards.
“Prison ministry is at the heart of the gospel,” says de Vries. He notes as well that it’s a tough place to do ministry, adding, “You don’t see the growth you might see in other ministries.” However, he finds it worthwhile because it reaches people often overlooked by society, all of whom have real stories, real needs, and real futures.
During his years at the federal training center in Laval, de Vries was pleased to see the level of interest in chapel services. He soon learned, though, that part of the value the inmates placed on going to chapel together was a bit more freedom from the direct supervision of the guards. De Vries admits being a bit naive when he began his service there.
“They were good years,” he says, and seeds were planted, “but you can’t change the world in jail.”
He recalls counseling members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, leading Bible studies with convicted murderers and rapists, and facilitating visits from local Christian Reformed and other churches, always trying to build relationships and create safe spaces for interaction and learning.
A decades-long career followed, including psychiatric chaplaincy in St. Thomas, Ont.; provincial regional chaplaincy coordination; and chaplaincy in the Guelph (Ont.) Detention Centre and the Chatham-Kent (Ont.) Health Alliance.
De Vries was also a chaplain for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and he has read Scripture for the opening of the New York City Marathon on two occasions. In recent years he has served with Dismas, in London, Ont., as a volunteer, where he meets regularly with 30 to 35 former inmates beginning a new life after prison.
Although officially retired for ten years, at 74 years old, de Vries remains active in chaplaincy at the denominational level as a member of the Christian Reformed Chaplaincy Ministries Advisory Committee — and locally as a board member of Mission Services London, which offers hope for people who are homeless.
His experiences have led him to become a strong advocate for restorative justice rather than simple punishment. “Prison is not a natural place for healing or renewal,” he notes. “Rehabilitation is very difficult in jail; it’s too cancerous an environment.”
In a restorative justice system, he says, there is accountability and a goal of restoration. This kind of justice creates a safe place for a perpetrator to face his or her victim where they can speak, creating understanding, and, hopefully, move toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
Restorative justice has several benefits over punishment, says de Vries. It looks forward rather than backward, generates hope rather than institutionalizing violence and punishment, and brings renewal. What’s more, he says, studies show that it works.
A program of Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) received federal funding in Canada for five years through the Department of Public Safety in 2009. When it was time for the funding to be renewed in 2014, it was turned down — but that decision was reversed and the funding was reinstated when legislators recognized that CoSA reduced offender recidivism.
De Vries hopes to see more Christian Reformed people get involved in prison ministry and restorative justice. “There’s not a lot of interest yet,” he challenges. “We’re a middle-class church, so there’s not a lot of contact with people in jail.”
In fact, he points out, there are currently no endorsed CRC chaplains working in prison ministry as federal, state, or provincial chaplains (meaning they are hired by the government to do the work of professional chaplaincy to ensure religious freedom, help provide religious accommodations, and provide pastoral care).
However, efforts are being made. There are Bible teaching and correspondence ministries as well as prison churches, one at the Hanlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich., and another at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, that many CRC members work and volunteer with.
The CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care Ministry has one endorsed chaplain who works with former inmates and one who works for a non-profit organization and runs a Bible study and volunteer program in a prison. Other CRC pastors have set up churches or Bible studies in prisons with help from classis, local nonprofit organizations, or fundraising.
Volunteers who visit or correspond with inmates give them an opportunity to speak freely and learn about life outside the walls of their prison, while the volunteers themselves learn more about factors in crime, such as broken homes, family issues, mental health, or poverty. De Vries notes, “In many ways, they become Christ for the incarcerated.”
Restorative justice aims to help former inmates to be better integrated back into society and sets them up for a more successful future. Progress is being made, says de Vries. People in prison are ensured spiritual care of their choice, and there is a growing recognition of the value of restorative justice as an option in the judicial process. This is a trend de Vries hopes will continue. “The law does need to be upheld, and people need to be protected. But a discussion on top of a sentence may heal something, and help restore.”