|A Lifer's Journey
Hank Dixon’s book, A Lifer’s Journey (Winnipeg: Prairie Heart Press, 2021), can be divided into four parts: 1. a conversion narrative, 2. an accompaniment model of chaplaincy, 3. a cautionary tale about prison ministry, 4. and a hopeful look at chaplains as part of a larger group of staff who work in a challenging environment.
Hank’s conversion story becomes meaningful in the context of prison life. A shepherding model of spiritual direction comes to the fore against the limiting backdrop of an evangelistic approach (per se). The reality of evil sets the tone of what is needed for healing and redemption. Hank’s rapport with staff and compassionate consideration of the difficulties of prison work show how chaplains can find lasting fulfillment in their ministry.
1. Conversion Narrative
Hank’s conversion narrative undergirds the fact that many inmates relapse and fall back into old habits after they have made a commitment of faith. This happened to Hank when he had to deal with his father’s death, the hard reality of prison life, and his return to using drugs to cope with this situation (pp. 56-59). Hank outlines a theological model of change that moves the discussion from darkness to light. He encourages chaplains to consider the complexity of the conversion experience in providing positive direction. In some cases, this simply means doing “no more” harm (Primum Non Nocere, pp. 93-110). Various books provide grounding to Hank’s story of transformation. Gordon T. Smith has written about the need of new believers to construct a conversion narrative in Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation. Malcolm Rigsby has written about what this looks like a prison context, “”Prison, Religion, and Conversion: The Prisoner’s Narrative Experience,” Finding Freedom in Confinement, pp. 171-195.
2. Accompaniment Model
Hank’s accompaniment model comes to the fore when he uses the Gospel story of Jesus’ walk to Emmaus to show how chaplains can help offenders (Luke 24:13-35, pp. 112-139). The light offered is first and foremost a consideration of what has occurred in an inmate’s life. Jesus starts his story with an explanation of Moses and the prophets, verse 27. The two strangers see the light when Jesus breaks bread with them, an act of action and compassion that cements their spiritual bond, verse 31. Other accompaniment books include Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer and The Return of the Prodigal Son, along with Scott Peck, A Road Less Travelled. Hank quotes Tilden Edward who has developed a model of spiritual friendship in Spiritual Friendship: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction, p. 112.
3. Reality of Evil
A retired staff person recently stopped me in the street and asked me how retirement from chaplaincy was going. After a few moments of sharing, she looked at me and said, “One never forgets what working in prison is like. One is constantly vigilant, suspicious, and somewhat anti-social, years after leaving the place. How does one describe that experience to another person?” Some of the more important parts of Hank’s book undergird this insight. Numerous stories of how he was duped by inmates, chaplains, and ministers alike provide the wherewithal to consider the impact of deception and violence in ministry, pp. 194-221. How do chaplains and other staff remain compassionate and caring when so much of their work involves questioning the truthfulness of what is being said. So much of what is said in prison life is wrapped up in enough of a believable fabrication of tales and ounce of truth that one is left speechless from the sheer audacity of it all. After awhile, one begins to question everything. The miracle of prison work has to do with the fact that some staff become more compassionate precisely because of the darkness all around them. Light shines more brightly in this darkness than in a sunny atmosphere. Kevin Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement has been written to help staff with the emotional upheavals that is a constant in prison life. Hank has used Gavin de Becker’s book, Gift of Fear, to help chaplains understand the type of environment into which they are going, p. 194. I have outlined the dynamics of authority, loyalty, and sanctity versus an emphasis on compassion, liberty, and equality in A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, pp. 25-42.
4. Rapport with Staff
Hank’s numerous stories of establishing rapport with staff represents a wonderful complement to the vagaries of prison work, pp. 160-173, 174-193. Humour, deference, self-deprecation, respect, loyalty, and solidarity are words that require large amounts of work to become real. Hank has experienced this reality as an inmate as well as a staff person. Respect for authority, not taking things too seriously, long pauses to reconsider a course of action, and trepidatious calls for help are what enable chaplains to stand alongside other prison staff in their work with offenders. This is not an easy line to walk, as Hank illustrates so well.
In conclusion, Hank’s experience of prison and chaplaincy from the inside and outside ground this book with profound insights. Many of the reflections echo my own experiences.