Jeff arrived at Springhill Institution in 2006 to serve a five-year sentence. Not long after, he joined a spiritually grounded therapy group at the Nova Scotia corrections facility.
It was in this circle gathering that Jeff began the journey of the cross — the place of life’s intersections, where pain meets pain and transformation becomes possible. Jeff’s life story contains themes familiar to many inmates: parental neglect, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse and violence.
While working through his story, Jeff came to focus on his hands. “How could these, which are part of me, one who has known such pain, inflict such terror and pain on others?” he asked. And so, as he did his inner work, Jeff put his hands to the work of transformation as well. He began to collect bits of wood: a scrap of maple from the woodworking shop, a piece of mahogany from the craft room. He started carving simple crosses that he gave to other inmates who were companions on this journey of transformation.
In 2007, then moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano visited Springhill. He joined a group of inmates in a circle conversation one afternoon, listening to their stories and responding to questions. At the end of the gathering, Jeff presented Giuliano with one of his crosses, and Giuliano graciously promised to wear the cross and tell others its story.
Five years later, Giuliano and I connected at a General Council meeting. He asked about Jeff, and I was so touched by what he told me that I asked him to write it down. This is his story:
I wore the cross every day I was moderator. Once, my folks were visiting me in Toronto on their way to Quebec City at Christmas. Dad asked if I had a cross he could borrow. “I like to have a cross when I travel.”
I offered him the one Jeff gave me. I told Dad its story. He had spent years as a chaplain in corrections. That was the part of his ministry where — ironically — I think he felt most free. “That man made it for you and wants to know you are wearing it wherever you go,” he said. The next morning, he boarded the train without a cross. That was five years ago.
In January 2012, the doctors told Dad that they had exhausted their chemotherapy options. His health rapidly deteriorated.
I drove down to Owen Sound, Ont., to help care for Dad at home. He asked for a cross to hold. I’d brought the one from Jeff with me. We looped it around the rail of the bed so he could hold it and touch it. It was there when he died.
When the funeral home came to collect him, we made sure the cross went with him. It was cremated with Dad and blended with his ashes. Last July, we interred them at the village cemetery at Ingoldsby, Ont., on the shore of Lake Kashagawigamog. Dad had the cross for the journey to which he has now been called.
Jeff is out of prison now, working full time and in a supportive relationship. He is continuing to heal and to develop his faith. And he is still carving crosses and giving them away.
Recently, Jeff and I shared a meal at a crowded restaurant — his treat, he insisted. I told him Giuliano’s story, and he was deeply touched. When our meal came, he bowed his head and gave thanks for all the people who had supported and encouraged him along the way. And with a tear in my eye, I reached into my pocket and touched the cross he’d given to me.
Rev. Lloyd Bruce is a United Church chaplain at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.
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