"We're just doing our best"

Dismas Fellowship participates in art project

Sometimes the best way to save something old is to infuse it with something new.

This is what happened when Rick Pauw, MCC Ontario Restorative Justice staff member, received a call from Alison Miculan, a community art enthusiast at New Vision United Church in Hamilton. Alison had a sanctuary full of old wooden church pews that were no longer needed but that she couldn’t bear to throw out – would Dismas Fellowship be interested in joining an art project to give these old benches new life? Dismas Fellowship is a group that provides a safe and welcoming place where ex-prisoners – called “core members” - and friends can experience Christian community.

Rick, who is also a musician, saw an opportunity to use art as a tool of healing and expression. “There is a unique space for art in our hearts – especially those who have suffered, or caused suffering. There’s something cathartic about expressing yourself through art – even if you don’t see yourself as an ‘artist’”.

In early November, Rick, together with core members, volunteers,and friends, as well as other community members, gathered together with lots of paint but little idea of where to start. “We didn’t have an artist overseeing this,” recalled Rick with a laugh. “We had a bunch of people who had no idea what they were doing because none of us had done this before. But really, it was kind of a story of trust and faith… every time we got stuck, we’d have a conversation.”

The overarching story that the group decided on was that of a “Freedom Journey Man” who forges a path from prison to freedom with many stages in between.

“It’s easy to assume that leaving prison is freedom, but it’s much more complicated than that,” explains Rick. For Barry, a core member, his transition to freedom was a challenging one. “Being released from prison was scary. The bars were almost like my protection from the outside world. The unknown is scary.” He acknowledges that he is still “near the beginning of the freedom journey.”

“For many of these folks, returning to a community where they are likely to face poverty, temptations, being found out and then rejected, is much harder and scarier than the structured life they experienced in jail,” explains Rick.  “For us, safe and successful re-integration involves being welcomed and received by people who care enough to challenge each other to make healthy and safe choices.”

On November 10, 2017, the freshly painted pews were on display at New Vision United Church as part of Hamilton’s monthly “art crawl”, where the public can walk to various venues around town to view art and meet artists. Alissa Bender, who is pastor at Hamilton Mennonite Church, volunteers with Dismas Fellowship and loved seeing the fingerprint tree of members who had ‘signed’ the painting but couldn’t be there on the night of the art crawl. “It felt like they were there even though there are many that I don't see outside of Dismas. Seeing their thumbprint signatures, I was more aware of their presence in that sacred space.”

The pew is now on display at First Pilgrim United Church in Hamilton where it serves as a poignant reminder of the imperfect yet beautiful offerings of an imperfect and beautiful community.

As Rick noted when they started painting, “We wanted to be forgiving rather than professional. We’re just a community of people doing their best.”