When someone asks me about my ministry with Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), I tell them about the glimpses of grace that I have seen. I talk about grace because the individuals we work with are some of the most unlikely candidates for special favour or consideration. They are individuals who have committed sex crimes and are returning to society after time served in prison. And even in prison they are the most despised group of inmates, often incarcerated separately from the rest of the population for their own safety. Upon release, few people will welcome them back. They will likely carry the stigma of their offense history for the rest of their life, making it very difficult for them to find housing, work, volunteer opportunities or acceptance in society.
I also speak about grace because this ministry has opened my eyes to the boundless favour of our God in Jesus Christ, to all who turn to him. I have come to see that no one is beyond the boundless grace of our God, and that Jesus calls us to look beyond the offenses to the God-created potential in each person’s life.
Before I say more about these glimpses of grace, let me give some background. This is certainly not a career that I would have chosen for myself. My studies prepared me for urban planning, but a number of life experiences drew me to work with people involved in the criminal justice system.
Put simply, as a child I had experienced God’s grace myself, liberating me from a debilitating condition that almost took my life. Then, as I sought to understand this grace, the realization that each day is a gift from God drew me to work with others on the margins of society. Jesus’ love for me during my time of need compelled me to see other people through His eyes.
I began to connect with people involved with the criminal justice system when I lived with an intentional Christian community that welcomed people for short stays in our house. It was during this period that I met Charlie Taylor. Charlie was a repeat offender who had just been released at the end of a federal prison sentence — we had no idea what we were getting into. He was a product of a horrendous childhood, having grown up in the notorious Huronia Regional Centre where he had been introduced to sex with older men.
As we befriended Charlie, he became a regular participant at our community dinners and other activities. He had a gift of laughter and was a great cook. We even celebrated his second anniversary out of prison with him, but the dark forces in Charlie’s life resurfaced and he re-offended the day after Christmas in 1986. His crime shook us to the core. We experienced first-hand the destructive ripple effect that a sex crime has on the people involved — his family, neighbourhood, we his friends and, of course, the immediate victim of the crime. Charlie was sentenced to another seven years in prison.
Through my own experience with disability, I had been introduced to the idea of the ‘circle’ — one that involved a group of friends supporting individuals with major health challenges to overcome barriers and live fully in the community. I acknowledge that without the help of my circle of friends and family, I too would not have been able to deal with the obstacles that I faced. I had the benefit of support of many people in my circle, but Charlie didn’t have anyone except for our small community. Two of us continued to visit Charlie during those seven years of custody and then, with the help of some key people that became part of Charlie’s circle upon his release in 1994, some surprising things happened.
A small church community in Hamilton began to support Charlie. Although he was deemed to be at 100 percent risk of reoffending in the first year of his release, with the support and accountability of his circle, Charlie managed to stay offense free for the rest of his life. He died eleven years later of health-related issues in 2005.
Charlie became the first “core member” of what later became known as a program called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). The program has since been adapted to many other situations and offers hope to others like Charlie. A circle consists of one ex-prisoner, who is referred to as the core member, two to four trained community volunteers and a CoSA staff member, depending on the need. They agree to a covenant, which spells out what they promise each other, including a commitment to the safety of the community. “No more victims,” is one of our mottos. The Circle meets together on a regular basis (once or twice a week) upon the core member’s release from prison, to accompany him in dealing with the challenges of re-entry into society, meeting less often over time.
Where destruction and mayhem once flowed from this crime against vulnerable members of the community, there is now opportunity for redemption and restoration. The circle has become a vehicle of grace. In fact, during the years of ministry with Circles I have witnessed many streams of healing flowing from such circles of support and accountability, bringing surprising results in unexpected places. It has also allowed those of us who become involved to be wiser about preventing sexual offenses and thus contributing to safer communities. Where there was once despair and destruction, grace now abounds.
Here are some inspiring stories I’ve seen over the past year:
- When we first began connecting with Ben, he often spoke of taking his life. He now speaks of having “a life,” even though he still faces enormous challenges like dealing with his legal conditions and finding safe affordable housing.
- Nick, who almost lost his life due to an unprovoked stabbing incident a couple of years ago, is now known in his current residence for his sewing skills. He is often asked to repair clothes and make curtains. At a recent meeting, Nick said to a circle member, “You’re like a father to me.”
- Jim first came to Toronto after hearing the story of a volunteer involved in CoSA. This volunteer became a vital source of support and accountability to Jim. Then, during the final months of this circle volunteer’s life, Jim became a vital support to him and his wife.
- Fred is now settled in his own apartment and employed moving office furniture after spending much of the past year living between the streets and emergency shelters. He has also found help in his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. He continues to meet regularly with his circle.
In spite of the many inspiring stories, there are no guarantees of success. Core members have gone back into custody for new offenses or breaches of their legal condition. Others remain in crisis due to mental health issues and lack of safe, affordable housing. I have become acutely aware of gaps in our social safety net as well as the brokenness of our criminal justice system.
There were many times in the past year when things seemed to fall apart in the lives of the folks we accompany. Times when all I could do was offer my best and leave the rest in God’s hands. A verse that offered encouragement to me several times are these words from Psalm 74, which were spoken during a time of utter chaos in the history of Israel: “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.” Thankfully there were other times this year when, at the end of the day, I could say that God was at work behind the scenes, steering us to prevent harm and build safe ways of relating.
Indeed, through CoSA, grace continues to abound at the hard edges of society, including positive relations with our community partners like probation and parole officers, and the High Risk Unit of the Toronto police.
Research has proven that society also benefits. Studies have shown that CoSA substantially reduces the recidivism or recommittal rate of those who participate in the program. There are also significant cost savings, and a social impact study has found that for every dollar invested in this ministry there are six dollars in savings. What can’t be measured is the impact that CoSA makes in preventing crime, restoring lives and making communities safer to live in.
What makes this work special is that we have many opportunities to exercise our faith as reflected in our commitment to affirming the God-created humanity of each person we work with. And it is reflected in our actions and prayers.
We begin working with the core member at their level and do not make faith a condition of their participation. The objective of our work is the core member’s safe reintegration into the community, and we celebrate small achievements and victories. And wherever I can, I try to introduce core members to the Friend I have in Jesus. Faith does not stand on its own — it is intricately connected with the hope and the love that God pours into our hearts through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Charlie Taylor was once asked about his faith. “I don’t believe in God,” he said, “but I have friends who do.” A few months before he passed away, at a small celebration in his home, I remember how Charlie joined us in singing Gospel choruses that he had learned from being part of his Circle of Support and Accountability.
I am inspired by the account recorded in the Gospels (see Mark 2) of the four friends who took their paralytic friend to see Jesus. They couldn’t get through the door so they proceeded to climb up to the roof and then lowered their friend in front of Jesus. Jesus saw their faith and then addressed their friend, first by forgiving his sins and then enabling him to walk. Something similar is happening in our communities through these circles.
I love the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Who understands better what it means to be under the power of sin, even cancelled sin, than our core members! Society is slow to forgive. The harm done in a sex crime often has life-long, if not generational, implications. But thank God! Jesus is able to break the power of sexual crimes, even those not cancelled by our justice system. He accepts the despised and rejected and sets the prisoner free. I count myself among those who have been touched by God’s grace.