Pizzas, Street Parlours and Prisons

Arnie (not his real name) was a regular visitor at the little church I pastored. I often welcomed him into the church boardroom which functioned as a vistor’s parlour where I would offer him a cup of tea or coffee and something to eat…sometimes it was a slice of pizza leftover from an earlier committee lunch meeting.

picnic pizza

But Arnie rarely had an appetite for food. His suffering was too great, intense and immediate to enjoy the simple pleasure of food. What he wanted was whatever money I could spare so that he could go to the liquor store. He needed the alcohol to numb the unrelenting pain.

Then, without warning, a week passed and then another with no sign of Arnie. I wondered what had become of him.  He had talked about wanting to go back home to his people’s First Nation Reservation in Saskatchewan, and so I hoped against hope that he had finally got his “ducks in a row” in order to make his dream come true. But I also I feared the worse. You see, Arnie was homeless and it was getting cold at night. I imagined him lying dead in an alleyway after succumbing to hypothermia or worse yet, beat up and left for dead in a ditch. I finally called the RCMP to put in a missing person report. The officer informed me–with a prejudicial tone and sarcastic edge that shredded any remaining vestiges of my idealized hero’s image of the RCMP–that Arnie was staying warm and dry at a regional correctional centre at taxpayers’ expense. The officer assumed I shared his jaded view, that Arnie was not one of “us” but rather a free loading criminal who belonged to the world of “them.” But to me, Arnie was a friend, a child of God, and I was simply relieved to learn that he was alive and relatively safe.

I would eventually see Arnie again, at his request. This time, however it was me who came knocking on his door, or rather his warden’s door at the correctional centre. Had Arnie been at his home in Saskatchewan I’m sure he would have taken great pride in saying, “Welcome to my parlour,” or something equivalent. Instead, with his head down, a prison guard ushered him into a visitor’s cubicle very similar to the one pictured below.


Photo credit:

Recently, Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety–in response to the public outcry over his knee jerk reaction to cancel takeout pizza food orders to prison–defended his decision by saying that he wants to ensure that prisons act as a deterrent. He’s afraid that prisoners once released will commit further crimes in order to come back to the warm pizza parlour atmosphere of prison. I kid you not, this is what he said:

A primary goal of any correctional system is to ensure that prisons are places no one wants to go to and to which no one would want to return. That’s why we feel it’s not in the public interest to provide pizza parties to criminals. —Globe and Mail, January 5, 2013

Vic Toews is right to be concerned about recidivism ratesBut it’s not the pizza parties that keep some coming back. Arnie taught me that something much more basic is at stake.  In our visit, Arnie admitted that he deliberately got himself arrested in order to have shelter and safety during the wet and cold west coast winter. And he is not an isolated case. It’s not the pizza that keeps repeat offenders coming back, but a respite from the streets – especially in winter.

Photo credit:

Whether or not they get “coddled” by the occasional pizza or chicken takeout dinner will make not an iota of difference to these repeat offenders. Even restrictive regimes become tolerable for the sake of shelter from the elements.

In the government’s eyes, the world is simple: there are “bad” people (those who have broken the law), and there are “good” people (everyone else).  —Edward Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob

Our government–through its “tough on crime” agenda” wants us to view all offenders through the lens of uncomplicated evil provided by the Paul Bernardos of this world.  But as Daniel Baird points out in Rough Justice, “…petty thefts, street-level disputes and drunken episodes do not exactly involve big-time evil,” but they are the crimes that “most often get punished because these are the cheapest and easiest to prosecute. This weights the brunt of the justice system against the poor, the underprivileged and minorities.”

Rather than giving us a picture of uncomplicated evil, Aboriginal inmates–who continue to be over-represented in Canada’s correctional system (27% in provincial custody and 20% in federal custody) illustrate the complicated sources of crime. All share a background of childhood deprivation and trauma characterized by parental absence, severe poverty and physical and sexual abuse.

Using language such as “ordinary Canadians” versus “criminals” Vic Toews makes it all too easy for us to cast our punitive gaze solely on the offender rather than seeing “the offender in relationship to Canadian society of which he or she is a troubled part,” as Baird rightly points out. It was not always so. Back in 1971,  Eldon M. Wooliams, the justice critic for the Progressive Conservative party recognized that crime is a community problem and the community needs to participate in the solution.

 …crime is not just a sordid happening but rather a result of human behaviour brought about by our economic and social conditions which we have failed to change.

 ….crime is not only the fault of the prisoner but the fault of society as well. Everyone is born as clean as a white piece of paper. It is society that creates the environment which leads to crime.

You can read more excerpts from Wooliams speech here.

Last Friday, in his announcement of legislation that would make it tougher for high risk offenders with mental illness to get unescorted day passes, Prime Minister Harper spoke of the unbalances in the justice system when it focuses solely on the rights of the person convicted of the crime while ignoring the rights of victims. While I support our government’s desire to make the justice system more equitable, I pray that its field of vision continues to expand beyond the “offender – victim” dichotomy to encompass the responsibility Canadian society bears in creating the conditions, such as poverty and homelessness, that contribute to incarceration in the first place–especially among our aboriginal citizen population–and to work towards solutions to eliminate them.

Other links of interest:

Mr. Toews Doesn’t Understand Prisons

The Ethics of Pizza, Prison and Punishment

Aboriginal Incarceration in Canada A National Shame

The Justice System and Aboriginal People


Luminescent Somno- lescence

We spent a lovely afternoon with our grandchildren and extended family at the Vancouver Aquarium yesterday. The exhibits were fabulous and the wonder in the children’s eyes delightful to behold…and we were exhausted by the time we got home.


Photo credit: @fine_idea

A day of aquatic luminescence–

colliding with senescence–

slipping into somnolescence.


Creating Safety

This post has been updated on January 28, 2013

To all living in the Greater Vancouver area, but especially to the citizens of  Delta and Surrey: Do you want to help make our communities a safer place for women? Check out this free community cafe organized by Shakti Society & Battered Women’s Support Services. 

View the story “Creating Safety Community Cafe – Jan. 20, 2013” on Storify




Peace to all Children, Women and Men of Goodwill

Heartfelt wishes for peace and joy this Christmas to all who have stopped in to take a peek, left a comment or shared a post. I look forward to meeting you here again Between-the-Pixels in the New Year.  

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds 

Catena (Vincenzo di Biagio)  (Italian, Venetian, active by 1506–died 1531) Downloaded from

An invitation to see and hear more of The Christmas Story in works of art from the Metropolitan Museum.


A Prayer for the Children of Connecticut

On Friday, December 14, 2012, 20 children were killed in a shooting rampage at an elementary scool in Newtwon, Connecticut. Seven adults, including the gunman, also died at the scene. As the families and freinds of he deceased mourn the loss of their loved ones, we pray for the children, and for all those whose lives have been affected by this tragedy.

This image has been donated to the public domain. You can learn more about its creation and the symbolism of its colors at

Our hearts are broken.

Today, in the midst of holiday cheer, 

we are painfully reminded of the cruelty and fragility of our lives together.

How do we live with such unimaginable grief?

How do we comfort such intolerable pain?

How do we care for each other in a world where violence seems so readily accessible?

Great comforter and protector,

We have no answers.

No words that can heal the broken heartedness we feel.

–Alydia Smith

You can download the full text of the prayer by clicking on the link at the United Church of Canada



In this Time of Disruption, Let Your Presence Be Known

I offer the following prayer for staff and patients affected by the recent accidental flood at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department.  I am grateful to L. Annie Foerster and her collection of prayers in For Praying Out Loud  for providing inspiration.


Photo credit: fine_idea

Honoring the diversity of our spiritual heritages and the unity of our human condition let us join our hearts in a spirit of prayer for all affected by the accidental flood at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department.

Sustaining and creating Spirit, be vitally present to administrators, project leaders, and medical officers as they work tirelessly to assess the damage, put in place interim measures and restore services.

Spirit of Life, we give thanks that no patients were harmed and that only one staff person was injured.  We pray for her recovery at home. Bring peace to the patients that have been transferred to other sites or re-directed to other medical centres. Let your presence be known and resettle their hearts in your love

Spirit of Love, we give thanks for families caring for loved ones. Let your presence be known through the warmth of their hands as they reach out to touch and comfort and soothe.

Spirit of Compassion, we give thanks for all caregivers and front-line staff and for their willingness to do whatever is right and necessary for the well-being and safety of the persons they serve. Through their commitment and selfless giving let your presence be known.

At the heart of our healthcare institutions is a community of care. We are bound to one another. We belong to and with each other. Holy One, whom we call by different names, as Fraser Health staff, administrators and community partners seek to embody your love in the work of caring–especially in this time of disruption–let your presence be known. So be it. Amen.





On this Thanksgiving Day in Canada I ponder the question,”How can I justify sitting down with family and friends around a feast of plenty when women are being raped in refugee camps, when children are forced to be child soldiers, and the homeless on our own streets abandoned and demonized?” Is not such indulgence in the face of the overwhelming suffering and injustice in the world a callous turning away or “a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders“?

Of course, I am not the only one to struggle with the meaning of thanksgiving. Ann Voskamp provides an answer to my moral distress with her arresting insight:

I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I’ve seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks. . . 

from  A Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where you Are


Photo credit: Al Jaugelis

I am also inspired by the embodied wisdom and witness of the African American Church who understand thanksgiving as “a tenacious hold on  the possibility of goodness and justice in spite of present circumstances.”

Here is an excerpt from the hauntingly beautiful poem, by Howard Thurman for whom thanksgiving was a sacrament–an expression of tenacious faith “in the face of death-dealing circumstances“.

 A Litany of Thanksgiving

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.


A Sacrament of Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving Day in Canada I ponder the question,”How can I justify sitting down with family and friends around a feast of plenty when women are being raped in refugee camps, when children are forced to be child soldiers, and the homeless …


Words and Worlds

Today’s global observance of International Literacy Day brings to my mind a couple of vignettes from my childhood…

My parents had tucked me into bed, switched the ceiling light off and said good night as they closed the door to my room. I waited quietly in the darkness for a few minutes to make sure they thought I was asleep. With my parents chatting in the kitchen while finishing up their evening chores  I was “safe” to begin my nightly adventure.  I reached for my bedside table light and put it under my quilt. Then came the tricky part–turning on the switch that always seemed to click too loudly and risked arousing my parents’ curiosity. As soon as I passed that hurdle undetected I was free to begin my nightly reading adventure under the covers with Nancy Drew


I grew up in Ville St. Michel, a primarily French Canadian working class neighborhood in Montreal which attracted a large Italian immigrant population supplemented with a smattering of Poles, Ukranians and other displaced Europeans from World War 2. (Low rents and cheap housing have continued to draw more recent waves of immigration from Haiti, Asia and the Arab world to my former neighborhood). My father spoke English as a second language but he enjoyed reading The Montreal Gazette in addition to the Canadian Lithuanian weekly paper. Although he only had a grade school education and was limited in how much help he could offer me with my school work he knew the value of books and reading to open a child’s mind to a larger world. And so one Saturday a month–regardless of how tired he was from the rigours of his blue collar job–he would drive me for a visit to the regional library.


Bibliotheque de La Petite Patrie

Photo credit: By Jeangagnon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The high ceilings, big spaces and old wood staircases provided a rich and welcome contrast to the claustrophobic dimensions of our row house. Delighted,  I would scurry to the children’s section, plop myself on the floor and comb the low bookshelves searching for books from my favorite non-fiction geography series–similar to the ones here. I was always sad to leave, but somewhat comforted by my armful of books, knowing that between their covers were words and images that would take me to far away places and lands until my next visit.  

image from


Dear readers, how has reading influenced your life or the life of someone you know? 

Try out some of these activities to celebrate International Literacy Day!



Bearing Witness with the People of the Casteless God

Oh my mind remember God for he shall remove all the sufferings…

As I read this english translation of the lyrics of “the Song of Bliss” projected on the overhead screen at the Candlelight Vigil at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, BC my own mind couldn’t help but think of parallels in the Jewish-Christian Bible, especially in the Book of Psalms:

Oh my soul, bless the Lord ...who heals all thy diseases…and forget not all his benefits…. (Psalm 103)

Sikhvigil Women light candles at the August 7 prayer vigil at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Surrey for the vicitms of the mass shooting of six Sikhs at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin on August 5. Photo credit – Sikh Community of BC on Twitter, @BCSikhs Another phrase from the Sikh scriptures, “…His caste is casteless” evoked for me the egalitarian God of the New Testament for whom:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female… (Gal. 4:28)

Earlier in the service, I was also struck by how the words offered by the president of the Gurdwara were not that different from what I would expect to hear from a Jewish rabbi or Christian pastor similarly charged with consoling the faithful in a time of tragedy. With gentleness and compassion Bikramjit Singh reminded us about human frailty and God’s merciful nature, and the need to practice forgiveness. While these similarities in no way erased the distinctives between my Christian faith and that of my Sikh hosts or between exclusive truth claims that may come into conflict with one another, my encounter in the Gurdwara with a merciful God who in freedom weaves through the sacred hymnody of both traditions, who exhorts us to compassion and forgiveness, and in whose eyes all are created equal spoke to me not of difference but of our common humanity. As a speaker at another candlelight vigil aptly said:

… our foundational desires, the things we wish for our families and the prayers we offer to heaven are so much more similar than they are different.

In spite of our common humanity it is still so easy to live inside a bubble sealing ourselves off from the perspectives and experiences of our neighbors.  Although my work as a chaplain brought me into weekly contact with staff, clients and families from the South-Asian community I had never visited a Gurdwara before. Not knowing what to expect I naturally had felt a little anxious on my drive out to the prayer service.  Normally at ease and “in the driver’s seat” navigating the spaces of home, work and church located inside my own personal bubble, as I drove through the gate of the complex, I now felt self-conscious as the conspicuous outsider asking for directions. Perhaps this reluctance to risk losing our usual sense of control when we step outside our comfort zone helps to explain why Christians were not present in greater numbers at the prayer vigil. Sadly, I suspect that an even a bigger factor is a theological barrier erected by some Christian churches and sects that prohibits their members from participating in the prayer services of other faiths, equating such services with “devil worship.” What is most disturbing about such harmful convictions is that they are adopted in blind faith without true knowledge and continue to spread like a virus infecting hearts and minds with fear of the dangerous “other”. Although speaking about walls of a different kind–those erected on the basis of class and ethncity–the following words of Rowan Williams apply equaly well to those who demonize their neigbors’ faith.

One [should] be wary about localizing the Devil, but [he is present] anywhere and everywhere that barriers are being reinforced between people.

There was a time when I was also wary of participating in the prayer services of another tradition for fear that such participation would somehow contaminate or compromise my own faith.  As I acquired a healthier theology that makes room for my neighbor’s religious beliefs I discovered that my own faith is not weakened through interfaith encounters but strengthened. By allowing the sacred music, prayers and hymnody of the Sikh tradition to have an impact on me, my Christian worldview was was not threatened but enlarged. My experience of the sacred while praying with the Sikh community broadened the context in which I read and hear the texts of my own tradition.  That context now includes sitting beside a young girl not more than eleven or twelve years old,  who graciously answered my questions about her faith and who told me about the importance of Charhdi Kala, a spiritual  discipline of cultivating a mindset that never despairs and refuses to be crushed by adversities. And it includes the poignant witness of men, women and children chanting, “waheguru, waheguru, God is good, God is good ” in the face of their grief and pain. Far from compromising my faith my Sikh brothers and sisters enriched it. To those who reinforce barriers by falsely labelling people as evil  I ask, “Is not falsely labelling people as evil one of the characteristics of evil? Is it not the sin which nailed Jesus of Nazareth to the cross? In the face of hate and violence rather than build barriers or insulate ourselves in our bubbles we need to build bridges across our differences. In his comments on the social and spiritual benefits of dialogue between Sikhs and Christians  Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams reminds us:

…that in a world of plural convictions and diverse communities, one of the most important things to which God calls us, is our willingness to take risk. Not just for own dignity and conviction, but for the dignity and the conviction of the other, the neighbor, the stranger…  

Friends, What stops us from taking the risk to know people of other faiths? And to my Christian brothers and sisters something to ponder: In the wake of the recent attacks on different faith communities, what would Jesus do if he lived where you live now?