(This article is written by Glen Flett and is reprinted from the Restorative Justice Week 2014 ‘Inspiring Innovation’ Basic Resource Kit.)
In the winter of 1982, a tremendous life changing event occurred that made me look at the world in a brand new way. I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior while serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison for the most horrendous crime a person can commit – murder. Five years prior, while robbing a Brinks truck, I shot and killed an innocent man named Theodore Van Sluytman. From the age of 10 until that terrible moment, I had lived a selfish and hedonistic existence. When I accepted God into my life, it all became so painfully clear. I would often find myself on my knees for hours, confessing the grim truth of all that I had done.
I was brought up in a good family. My parents tried so hard to change the path I had chosen. They introduced me to my grandfather’s dear friend, Dr. Reverend Emma Smiley, and also the head of the Truth Center in Victoria. Initially, I attended that church against my will. Eventually, I grew to love Rev. Smiley, mainly because she loved me. My mom said that Rev. Smiley saw life through rose colored glasses. After my conversion experience in prison, I began to live the teachings of Christ as closely as I could. I had a great mentor, Ted Cryer, who visited me on a regular basis and brought me books. I wrote to Rev. Smiley about my change. She was so overjoyed and told me to live my life in a loving way. She said that prayers come true. I thought: “Oh those rose colored glasses are too optimistic!”, but I prayed every day.
I started to really care about those around me, both inmates and guards. One year after giving my life to God, I had the greatest test of faith I have ever been given. One night, I called home and my dad answered the phone. He told me that someone had broken into Reverend Smiley’s home and beat her to death. I went numb. I couldn’t grasp what he was saying. I felt sick and overwhelmed. All I could think was: “How could God let that happen? Who could do such an evil thing to someone so good?”.
About nine months after her murder, the young man who killed Rev. Smiley was convicted and sent to the same penitentiary in which I was incarcerated. Revenge would have been so easy. However, I knew Rev. Smiley would not want that. She had always said that we needed to forgive and let go. I started to have a relationship with this individual. Years later, I attended his parole hearing where he was released. Through it all, I felt the Reverend smiling down on me. She loved me and everyone she met, even her killer. She was truly a Christian!
When I was released from prison in 1992, I founded a support group for inmates and their families called L.I.N.C. (Long-term Inmates Now in the Community). In 1995, while at a forum, I met Keith Kemp and Rosalie Turcotte who had both tragically lost children to homicide. L.I.N.C.’s journey to try to help those who have been harmed started after they befriended me. Since that day, I have been so privileged to meet people who have accepted me. Grace is amazing! Another close friend of mine, Marjean Fichtenberg, who also lost her son to murder, made it possible for me to meet with Margot Van Sluytman, one of my victim’s daughters, in 2007. She later became one of my best friends.
Since 1995, my wife and I searched for a way to give back to the victim community. Marjean spoke to me about the idea of a healing center for survivors. We had been looking into social enterprise businesses for some time when an opportunity arose to manage a community garden in Mission, B.C. Some of the vegetables grown were sold at the local farmer’s market to help fund a support group for victims of homicide. We learnt quickly that you have to grow a lot of squash to make money.
For that reason, we leased an eight acre parcel of land from the District of Mission and thus Emma’s Acres, named in honor of Reverend Emma Smiley, was born.
Emma’s Acres is truly incredible. Today, inmates who come out on escorted passes and work release, join us and work to make the dream come true. The first person hired for the project was Ray King Sr. whose son was murdered by a high profile offender. He too has become my friend. It feels good to hear him talk about our project and how it has brought light back into his life after living in hell for so long. I am so thankful that I listened to Reverend Emma Smiley.
My vision of restorative justice puts victims and survivors first. The people who work at Emma’s Acres can’t change what they did, but they can acknowledge their responsibility and do all they can to make a difference now. This is real restorative justice because the community and offenders work together to help bring healing and peace to victims. The project is succeeding because people from different walks of life are assisting. It’s an example, in action, of what Rev. Smiley used to say: “Live Life Lovingly!”.