Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
After he retired from a 46-year career as a sports reporter for the Free Press, Allan Besson was looking for something new to do as a volunteer.
Then the member of St. Vital Evangelical Mennonite Church heard Elizabeth Greer, Manitoba regional representative for Prison Fellowship, speak at his congregation.
"It hit me — this is what I want to do," said Besson of an opportunity to visit inmates in Manitoba jails and prisons. "It really spoke to me."
Besson started volunteering with the organization, which serves prisoners at all provincial jails and federal prisons in Manitoba, just before Christmas last year.
He had barely begun leading Bible studies at Stony Mountain Institution before the pandemic hit and the prison was shut down.
"It was good, until everything was locked up," he said of his regular meetings with 10 to 14 prisoners.
During the Bible sessions, Besson led the inmates in discussions about forgiveness and God’s love for them.
"We talked about God’s unconditional love, grace, mercy and forgiveness," he said, noting some in the group don’t think they are forgivable.
"They said God couldn’t forgive them for what they did," he said. "It’s hard for them to accept the message that God does forgive them."
Since the pandemic hit, Besson has not been able to stay in touch with the inmates. Instead, he has been volunteering to help organize a bike ride and walk-a-thon along the Bishop Grandin trail to raise money for Prison Fellowship on Sept. 19.
The event, called the Angel Tree Ride for Hope, is open to all. It will feature a 10-kilometre and 25-km walk or ride.
When he’s not helping with the Ride for Hope, "The only thing I can do now is pray for them," Besson said about the men he got to know in the prison.
For Greer, volunteers such as Besson are key to the success of Prison Fellowship.
Men and women inside Manitoba’s jails and prisons "need friends who will listen to them, pray with them, be a friendly voice," she said.
That’s especially true now since the pandemic lockdown has prevented inmates from having any visitors, including family.
"One inmate told me, ‘Life inside is bleak,’" she said, with no programs or group activities. "The days are long and boring, and nothing changes."
For that reason, the organization is in the process of creating a toll-free phone line so inmates can connect with Prison Fellowship volunteers during the pandemic lockdown. She is also hoping they might be able to return to in-person volunteer visits in fall.
"We only want to do it if we can do it safely," she said, adding she is "so thankful Manitoba prisons have not been affected by outbreaks of COVID-19."
As for why Prison Fellowship exists, she said it’s quite simple.
"It’s a mandate of scripture," she said, referring to the words of Jesus about visiting those in prison. "We are just following that."
Volunteers bring a "message of hope and friendship," she said, adding volunteers also benefit from making new friends and "seeing their faith grow as they serve people who are marginalized in society."
Along with visiting inmates, the organization also supports inmates when they are released and supports their families through a program that provides Christmas gifts to the children of inmates.
Called the Angel Tree, the program provided gifts for 660 children in the province last year. The gifts are sponsored by church members, with each gift being a maximum of $35.
"The gifts went everywhere in the province," Greer said, adding it’s a way for inmates to "stay emotionally connected with their children."
This summer, the organization also helped 21 children attend day camps.
Prison Fellowship can use more volunteers, she noted, including for its new phone line.
"The inmates are very grateful when someone spends time with them," she said.
"If you ever want to feel appreciated, that’s a great side bonus of volunteering."
For more information about the Ride for Hope, or to register, visit www.prisonfellowship.ca.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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