Kingston Community Chaplaincy: A History

Beginnings: The Vision of One Man

Kingston Community Chaplaincy began because of the vision and dedication of one man: Alan Matthews. Rev Matthews was a Baptist minister who worked with at-risk youth in Hamilton through an agency called “Youth Anonymous”. In 1978, he was named Hamilton’s “Man of the Year” for this work. After he retired in the same year, he began driving to Kingston once a month to visit former clients, some of whom had ended up in the federal prison system. Alan was a member of Rev Wayne Soble’s congregation at James Street Baptist Church in Hamilton. When Rev Soble found out what Alan was doing, he approached his deacons to ask if the church could provide Alan with gas money for this worthy endeavour. But as the discussion ensued, it became apparent that not just gas money was required, but that what was needed was a whole new outreach project for the incarcerated and their families.

Two Churches Come Together

Alan offered support to the Hamilton men while they were inside, and when they were released back to Hamilton, he would connect them with supports there, one of which was James Street Baptist Church. But others were released into Kingston. Some families of inmates had also moved to Kingston. Where would they find support? It was decided that the outreach project needed to be locally based. Rev Soble approached Rev Ron Noble, then the minister at First Baptist Church in Kingston, his church agreed to take it on, and a partnership was born. A board of directors was appointed with members from both churches; each church donated $5,000. They named the program, “Project Reconciliation”. Alan Matthews, who had moved his family to Kingston, now was well equipped to carry on the work that he felt so passionate about: providing support to prisoners and their families. He continued to visit men in prison, offering support and counseling to them inside, providing spiritual and practical support to them and their families when they got out. Positive connections to the community were considered vital. As well as funding, First Baptist Church provided office space for the program. The church basement was turned into a Drop-in Centre where those who had been released could take a break, have a coffee and make connections with others facing similar challenges.

The Work Continues

Not only did Rev Matthews give consistent support after prisoners were released, he started regular groups for men in prison as well. These were called “Growth groups” and were loosely based on 12 step programs. Bible studies were also conducted. After Rev Matthews left, others with a similar vision carried on what he had started. One of them was Muriel Bishop. A Quaker community worker, she was described by a colleague as someone “with a heart for prisoners.” An inmate who met her while at Collins Bay Institution recalls her unique sense of humour, warmth and genuine interest in him. Like Rev Matthews, Ms Bishop would visit men and women in prison, interview those who were being released soon, especially those who were considered high-risk to reoffend, in order to link them with community services and the supports they needed. She also provided accompaniment as they got out: helping them take care of things such as finding a source of income, a place to live, and other basic survival needs.

The Work Expands

Muriel Bishop continued running the Growth groups inside prisons with assistance from volunteers. The inmates of Kingston Pen found it very helpful and it became the longest running group in that institution. Even the warden paid a visit because of what he had heard about it. After Muriel Bishop left in 1989, Jane Warren, who had volunteered with both Rev Matthews and Ms Bishop, was hired as the Part-time Director. She was also working on her Master in Theological Studies at the time. Ms Warren obtained funding from a variety of community organizations and churches and was able to offer more programs at the Drop-In Centre. There were weekly Bible studies and Growth groups for both men and women. One group was led by the wife of a prisoner. Jane Warren offered communion once a month. When a group of seriously abused women asked to start a support group, space was provided for them at the centre. But because some had been abused in a religious context, religious symbols were a problem, so to accommodate them, the symbols were temporarily taken down. Ms Warren felt that the mandate of Project Reconciliation included victims, offenders and their families. She and others found many ways to be of service to these groups. A retired teacher started an after-school tutoring program for the children of prisoners. This ran for a few years. Two energetic Queen’s students created a weeklong art camp for the children called Project Art Lab. It was very successful and ran for many summers at various locations in the city. Jane Warren also partnered with others with specific concerns to create new programs. Lee Huddleston, an Anglican deacon, worked with Jane to open a Youth Drop-In Centre on Montreal St to provide a safe place for at-risk youth.

Partnership with CSC Chaplaincy

Jane Warren also obtained funding from Correctional Service of Canada, which meant she needed to have well-defined goals and write a report each month. It also meant that the mandate of Project Reconciliation became more ecumenical, as the philosophy of CSC chaplaincy is to provide support to facilitate an individual’s spiritual growth in whatever faith he or she chooses. Accordingly, the Board of Directors, which had been largely made up of Baptists, acquired representatives from Anglican, Catholic, Quaker and United churches.

When Jane Warren left the position, Hugh Kirkegaard, the Regional Chaplain for CSC, approached the Board of Directors with a proposal to increase the annual grant to $30,000 if the project could expand to a full-time faith-based Community Chaplaincy. This meant that a chaplain could be hired full-time. Don Chisholm, a United Church minister and a retired army chaplain, was the interim director while a search took place for a full-time director. On April 1, 2003, Rev Greg Rodgers, former pastor of Wentworth Baptist Church in Hamilton, took on the position under the newly negotiated three-year contract with CSC. The contract included the following responsibilities: spend one day each week at Frontenac Institution, liaise with chaplains in federal institutions, attend federal chaplaincy conferences, and promote prison ministries in Kingston churches, as well as continuing the outreach programs of Project Reconciliation. Rev Rodgers continued to support prisoners as they were being released, at times accompanying them to meetings with their Parole Officers. He also would introduce them to church communities, sometimes driving as far away as London or Windsor to do so. Greg also liaisoned with other groups, such as Alternatives to Violence Project, and Circles of Support and Accountability in order to connect with those who needed more support.

New Challenges/New Directions

Up until this point, Project Reconciliation had been largely sponsored and overseen by the Baptist churches. Funding was supplied by community groups, local churches, the regional arm of the Baptist church: the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec (BCOQ) and for the past three years, a large amount from CSC. CSC offered another three year contract beginning in April 2006, but this time the Regional Chaplain Hugh Kirkegaard urged the Board of Directors to seek incorporation as a non-profit charitable corporation. Back in 1983, just a few years after the beginning of Project Reconciliation, in another Canadian city, Rev Pierre Allard had pioneered a similar outreach project. Rev Allard, a CSC chaplain, had been contracted by CSC to create a program of community re-integration in Moncton, New Brunswick. Although similar to Project Reconciliation, it had its own status as a non-profit charitable corporation with a multi-faith emphasis. Because CSC’s chaplaincy policy required a multi-faith approach, this was now the model that Rev Kirkegaard wished the project to adopt. The financial recession at the time also meant that churches and BCOQ were finding it more and more difficult to provide funding. Because of these factors, it was decided that this new direction was the best way to proceed.

Charitable status was obtained under a new name: Kingston Community Chaplaincy. Twelve new directors were appointed to the new board. In keeping with a multi-faith, inclusive approach, one director had aboriginal roots, another was Muslim, others had spent time in prison. An inaugural meeting of the new corporation was held in May 2007 with the Rev Dr Pierre Allard and the Rev Hugh Kirkegaard as speakers. Rev Rogers became the chaplain at Frontenac Institution shortly after this and the new Board appointed Rachel Robinson as the Interim Director and Community Chaplain. Rachel had been a contract administrative employee in 2007 and was completing her Masters degree in Restorative Justice at Queen’s School of Theology. First Baptist Church could no longer provide a location for the organization, and it moved to an office at 99 York Street. Although the Drop-In Centre was not in operation, other programs were made available. KCC partnered with Canadian Families in Corrections Network to offer programs for partners and children of inmates. Susan Gilger and Marg Holland were two of the group leaders.

When Rachel Robinson moved out west in 2010, David Hale was hired as chaplain. David had served for many years in Corrections as the Catholic chaplain in Kingston Pen, Frontenac and Bath Institutions, and he brought with him a deep compassion and understanding of the issues faced by prisoners. Carla Kennedy was hired as an
Administrative Assistant. When the Regional CSC chaplaincy started a prison volunteer training program at the Catholic Diocesan Centre, David and Carla spoke at these sessions and acquired volunteers for KCC. A Bible study was formed at the Portsmouth Centre and KCC began offering “Welcome Weekend” suppers once a month. These
consisted of potlucks attended by prisoners, ex-prisoners and volunteers. They provided social recreation and meaningful connections to the community. Out of this activity another group was formed; this time to encourage the creativity of clients. Diane Schoemperlen, a Kingston writer, formed a creative writing group for clients and volunteers while she was Writer in Residence at Queen’s. This was greatly appreciated by those who took part and many “literary” works were produced. David continued to provide accompaniment to prisoners being released and on-going support and counseling until he retired in 2013.

Does it Work?

As has been noted, those working in the organization have used a variety of approaches. Different gifts, different funding, have given rise to differing programs and structures. One thing has remained consistent however: the desire of those involved to provide non-judgmental, relational, community-based, practical and spiritual support for inmates and their families. Although Rev Matthews’ ministry began before the Restorative Justice movement became well-established, it is safe to say he and all the others who followed him have operated according to its principles: approaching the problem of crime in a way that promotes healing and restoration rather than punishment.

Has it really helped? Are communities safer because of KCC? No detailed statistics have been kept. It is true that some clients have returned to prison for various reasons, however many others have gone on to live productive lives. One example is John Rives. A prisoner who was visited by Muriel Bishop while serving time, he went on to volunteer at the Drop-In Centre. Later he became President of KCC’s Board of Directors. A published poet, he continues to serve others while working for the Lifer’s Group, which helps those serving life sentences to move forward with their lives. Has KCC kept prisoners from reoffending? Once again, no statistics have been kept, but sometimes examples can provide an even better picture. Rev Greg Rodgers recalls receiving a late-night call from a recently released man. The stresses had built up and he was in a state of crisis. “I’m afraid I might reoffend,” he confided. Greg and others were able to be there for him and the crisis was averted. This man was a sex offender. Having people he trusted to turn to in time of need made all the difference for him and also for those he might have victimized. There are many more stories like this that could be told of how having a caring community has made a difference to prisoners faced with the task of turning their lives around.

Looking Forward

As has been described, KCC has experienced many changes over the years including a name change and the change from being an outreach project of the Baptist church to becoming an independent charitable organization. These changes have occurred when those in charge responded to the challenges brought on by changes in the community and in our society at large.

In 2013 once again KCC is facing challenges. The $30,000/year funding from Correctional Service of Canada has been withdrawn. However, other sources of funding are being found and the work carries on. Our newly hired chaplain, Kara Braun, has extensive training and experience in the area of multi-faith spiritual care and a real enthusiasm for working with prisoners. As she joins a long line of dedicated chaplains, we look forward to the new vision and skills she brings to the role. And we look forward to other programs and ideas that will emerge as we continue to find new ways to offer support and encouragement to clients and their families on their journey of reintegration.