Prison is a place of deep suffering through rejection, marginalization, and misunderstanding. It is a place often devoid of hope.
My journey of hope through restorative justice began in 2012 when Calvin Theological Seminary offered a course entitled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation” at the prison I was in. We read Desmond Tutu's book, No Future Without Forgiveness. I witnessed the transformation of trauma and brokenness into healing and redemption, through the power of forgiveness and restorative justice.
I attend Catholic services and read an article in the FAITH Grand Rapids magazine about Dr. Jared Ortiz, a Hope College professor and co-founder of the Saint Benedict Institute (SBI), who reconciled with friends before going to college. I wrote and invited him to speak to the book club I was in. Afterwards, we continued to correspond and became friends, bonding over the Catholic faith and Benedictine spirituality.
Soon after, I was accepted into the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), a bachelor degree program offered to inmates in Michigan from Calvin University. I continued to study and research restorative justice, and wanted to share my newfound knowledge.
One day, while writing a paper on restorative justice and Christian hospitality, I wrote Jared and asked him if he and SBI would be willing to host a restorative justice conference. Within the week, he responded that they would love to, and "Most importantly tell me your vision for the conference and we will start organizing along those lines."
With the assistance of Jared and SBI, my classmates and I picked out the topics, speakers, and recorded video messages to be played at what became our first annual restorative justice conference in 2017. I even wrote Pope Francis in hopes that he would send a message for the conference. He didn't send a video message, but I did receive a letter from the Vatican saying that he would pray for the conference as well as for my classmates and I.
The conference was a success with over 350 attendees from all walks of life. I received the Bert Thompson Award for Faith-Based program from the National Association for Community Restorative Justice for helping organize the first conference.
Our second conference was held at Calvin University in 2018 and the Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese hosted our third conference in 2019. Tricia Worrell, the Director of Prison and Jail Ministry for the diocese, was instrumental in organizing this third conference. She came to the prison to meet with us several times and stressed that this was our conference and that our voices mattered.
Restorative justice, compared to the current criminal justice system, seeks to preserve the inherent dignity of both the victim and the offender, recognizing that each is made in and bears the image of God, the imago Dei.
Restorative justice further seeks to balance justice and mercy. Restorative justice is a life-giving response to crime and harm that seeks the flourishing of victims, offenders, and the community. And this is what we wanted to highlight in the current conference, focusing on forgiveness.
Several of us read Kate Grosmaire's book, Forgiving My Daughter's Killer, and wanted her to be the keynote speaker for our conference. Tricia helped us contact Kate and arranged for her to come to the prison and meet us before the conference. Moreover, Tricia and the diocese helped us raise funds for the conference and advertise, which is practically impossible from a prison cell. Still, she asked our input every step of the way.
My Catholic faith inspires my work on the conference and advocating for restorative justice in several ways. The rite of Reconciliation reminds me that I am both a sinner and forgiven. Thus, everything He gives me is a gift to be used not for myself, but to embrace and bless others.
Through daily prayer, reading Scripture, and the Rule of St. Benedict, my faith asks me not what I am to do, but who I am to be and who I am to love. My faith challenges me to become an agent of grace and change in the world around me, emulating the many saints and faithful Catholics around me, like Jared and Tricia.
The conferences built bridges between the different organizers and attendees of different groups, from Catholics and Protestants, to incarcerated individuals and public officials, to students and academics. Moreover, this current conference was able to build a committee of people to work on legislative and policy change.
While it is important what we as individuals can do, our success is not our own. I can hardly count the number of people who have spent their time, money, and energy into making the conferences and book club a success. Collaboration is essential – the success of the restorative justice movement will be tied to individuals working with one another toward the flourishing of the whole community.
My hope is that we not only continue to raise awareness about and get people involved in restorative justice practices but that we can implement concrete restorative practices like victim-offender dialogue in the Michigan Department of Corrections. Additionally, we need to implement complementary and supportive procedural policies, along with funding for existing state codes to provide better outcomes and give victims a greater voice.
We, as a church and community, can play our part by advocating for such programs. Only when we move from thoughts and words to action can we truly make a difference.
All of us can play our part in reforming the criminal justice system to make it reflect more clearly God's restorative justice.