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Robert Kinghorn: Mike found a home in Dismas Fellowship

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  • December 4, 2020

It’s a simple action, almost involuntary, and we seldom give it another thought. We are asked to dip into our deep pockets as we sit in the pews, and to spare some money for the less fortunate at Christmas.

It may be for the St. Vincent De Paul Society, ShareLife or for Dismas Fellowship, a community of hope and support where ex-prisoners and friends can experience Christian community. Where those who are living with the stigma of imprisonment marked on their papers and on their heart can find a place of belonging.

For many years, gift cards from this collection found their way into the hands of Mike, a Dismas member with a long history of gang-related crime. He had lived the high life of fast cars and money to burn before the law finally caught up with him.

It is fair to say Mike had an opinion and was not afraid to use it. Coupled with a temperament which was as volatile as nitroglycerin, there emerged a recipe for conflict. His status in the gang protected him in prison, but now that he had earned his release, he worked hard to leave all of that behind. However, as almost always happens, it takes time to shrug off the protective barrier we build around ourselves, and even within the Dismas community many saw only this aggressive, abrasive side.

Mike died suddenly last month at 50 having been part of Dismas for over 10 years. Undoubtedly this community had provided Mike with what he had been looking for in his life: people who could accept him, not for his bravado and bluster, but for his insecure self which longed to find a home.

Many at his funeral spoke of the softer, compassionate side he had carefully hidden. A member related how her daughter had come to know many of the Dismas community, including Gordie who many years ago had promised to pray for her. When Gordie died, Mike was the one who quietly approached her to say that he would pick up Gordie’s commitment.

The story was also told of a group who were talking outside after a Dismas meeting when a man approached offering drugs to some of the women. Mike’s protective instincts kicked in, and he gave the man a dressing down that he will not forget, telling him in no uncertain, profanity-laden terms, that he should be ashamed of himself insulting the women that way.

Others spoke of how he was the one who would gravitate towards the new members, or those who sat alone, to bring them into the community. Reminding us that often it is the one who has known rejection who reaches out to those who do not feel included.

I have known Mike for most of his 10 years at Dismas and it was the evenings that he cooked that made him proudest. He would imagine himself as the cordon bleu chef and all others unfortunate enough to be within earshot were his junior chefs. Tenderizing the meat was his forte as he hammered it into submission with a spiked metal mallet, causing the kitchen to look like a crime scene with chunks of meat and sauce decorating walls, floor and ceiling. Unfortunately, he had also perfected the fine art of disappearing, leaving others to labour long into the evening to make the kitchen suitable for human habitation.

It also turned out that the gift cards he received at Christmas from the parish were never going into his own pocket, but went to preparing a Christmas meal for his parents to repay them for the years of turmoil he had put them through. The simple Christmas gift from the pew was one that re-built relationships in a household many miles away.

Deacon Mike Walsh, in his homily, reflected on the words of the Dismas prayer which Mike would recite at every meeting. We can only imagine the longing in his heart which surrounded these words, and I pray that he is again living in a community of acceptance and love: 

“Dear God: In your mercy remember me and forgive me for the wrongs I’ve done. Set me free of my deep fear and resentments. Melt the hard places of my heart, and allow me the grace to surrender this day to your loving care. Amen.”

Rest in peace my dear friend.

(Kinghorn is a deacon with the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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