The energy was high and the mood joyous. Friends of Dismas, a Toronto group of former convicts, their families and friends, was celebrating. For me, this was a unique party. The planning team at first wanted to celebrate one member’s 10th year of sobriety and the completion of his parole, but the idea expanded to include all former prisoners who were making it back into the community.
Handmade signs along the walls read, “Welcome Back!” and “Luke 23:42." This scripture refers to Jesus’s crucifixion. He had been nailed to his cross between two criminals. According to the story, one hurled abuse at Jesus. The other said that while their punishment was justified, Jesus was innocent. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “...you will be with me in paradise.” That criminal is traditionally known as Dismas, hence group’s name.
I dined with an ex-con who had been involved in organized crime. A great conversationalist, he spoke of his conversion to Christianity. “When I suddenly saw me through [the victim’s] eyes, I wanted to change.”
He then reflected: “The punks today, they don’t even pull up their pants. It’s disgusting. They go around in gangs. No organization. No honour. If they don’t like someone, they pull a knife! In my day, we had rules. And if we went out to work, we wore a suit!” We both laughed. I hope he makes it.
John and B.J., from Trinity St. Paul’s United, are longtime Dismas volunteers. John recalled that they invited a newly released prisoner out for dinner on his birthday. John asked how he marked his birthday as a youngster. “He said, ‘No one ever remembered it.’” No wonder this group enjoys celebrations.
Roman Catholics served the banquet, which was held in a Baptist Church; a Seventh Day Adventist choir performed; and Harry Nigh, a very funny Mennonite and a founder of Dismas, acted as the Master of Ceremonies. It was ecumenism at its best.
My sister-in-law, Elda Thomas, was the one who invited us to this party. Elda has worked within the criminal justice system most of her life. A psychologist, she has been assistant to the Community Chaplain (Daisy Dunlop, The Bridge) and now volunteers with the Community Chaplaincy. She once said, “I can’t imagine the lives that most people were born into, or the circumstances that led them to prison. But if they decide they want a different life, I can offer to walk with them as they heal.” I’ve never forgotten that simple statement of solidarity with people about whom most of us don’t want to even think.
The former prisoners were named, called to the front and celebrated with a gift and wild applause. Volunteers, parole officers, ex-prisoners and former Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry gave speeches. For me, the most powerful speech was given by a young tattooed woman. Upon her release from prison, she set about the hard work of getting her kids back. She studied law and represented herself all the way to the Supreme Court. And she won.
We concluded by singing Dismas’s words. Beautiful.
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.