This year’s World Interfaith Harmony Week event speaker challenged the theme of the February 28, 2017 event. Bernie Farber said the theme, promoting tolerance and harmony in a fractured world, didn’t go far enough.
Society should “be in the business of accepting” minority groups and not just tolerating them, he explained. However, moving towards acceptance within society is going to be difficult, and perhaps even more so in the prison environment, he added. He said the event, sponsored by the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) chaplaincy team, was important because dialogue and awareness are critical to creating inclusive and open environments.
Bernie is the Executive Director of the Mosaic Institute, an organization that fosters learning and dialogue among diverse Canadian communities to advance justice, promote peace, and reduce conflict. He was joined by Rev. Bill Rasmus, A/Director, Reintegration Services Division for CSC, which covers Chaplaincy, Ethnocultural Services, and Social Programs. Both spoke of the important role chaplains play in helping minority groups in prisons deal with issues related to discrimination.
Chaplains with CSC support offenders by exploring questions related to spirituality, religion and life purpose. Bill said that chaplains not only provide spiritual services to offenders, but offer a safe space for them as well.
“As part of our evaluation process, we talk to offenders about how chaplaincy is doing,” Bill said. “And there are always offenders who say that when they visit with a chaplain, they feel human again. They feel like real people again.”
The culture of racism can be even more elevated in Canada’s prison environment, Bernie added, and inmates feel dealing with racism is even more difficult during incarceration.
“Chaplains are often the first point of contact for prisoners to voice their grievances and their concerns,” Bernie said. “It’s the presence of chaplains for those inmates of colour, those inmates of faith, those minority inmates, that becomes their source of comfort and support.”
Bill added that many groups in the chapel are made up of inmates from numerous religions and that talking together allows them to see similarities in their beliefs. “Mutual respect is experienced and in that, there is great power for change.”
This is a model for society as a whole, Bernie said. Moving forward, the best use of people’s energy is to drown out voices of hate and create platforms for communities, organizations and even prison systems, where people can share in constructive, rather than destructive dialogue. “These positive voices are already out there, we just need more opportunities to hear them and the discipline to tune out everything else.”