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A New Kind of Power
Eleanor Clitheroe, former CEO of Hydro One, shares her faith and her story with Faith Today magazine.

Eleanor Clitheroe is executive director of Prison Fellowship Canada and serves as a curate at an Anglican church in Oakville, Ontario. She is the editor of a recently released book about women in the Canadian penal system called Women Rising. In 2002 Clitheroe was dismissed from her position as CEO of Ontario’s Hydro One. Fending off very public accusations of wrongdoing, Clitheroe found comfort in her faith – and then she found a calling. Clitheroe (EC) spoke to Faith Today’s Karen Stiller (KS) about redemption, restoration and beginning again.

KS: Eleanor, most of the people who read Faith Today call themselves Evangelicals. Do you fit into that category?

Eleanor Clitheroe
Photo courtesy Prison Fellowship Canada.

EC: I come to my faith with an evangelical understanding but I don’t really put myself into any category. I have a foot in the Baptist Church and one in the Anglican. My dad was Anglican and I grew up in the Baptist Church as a child. I love the outreach of the Baptist Church; it connects with my sense of responsibility and call on my life. I love the liturgical side of the Anglican Church. I love the harmony of the sacramental side. But my focus is primarily on involvement as a Christian in the walk of life.

KS: Your involvement these days is concentrated on Prison Fellowship Canada. What are some of your personal challenges around that work?

EC: There are days when it can feel overwhelming and as if it’s all up to us. What we do may seem insignificant and what needs to be done seems so significant. We forget that God is in charge. I have learned that we may have things on our to-do list but, in the end, it’s really in God’s timing and in His place.

KS: What you are really doing is caring for prisoners and their families and those hurt by crime. It must be amazing to see the impact of the work of Prison Fellowship.

EC: The changes and transformations are mighty and often in the places we don’t expect to see them. As long as we work along and do what we are supposed to do, those are our best days. It’s when we get ahead of ourselves that we get down. There are a number of people around the world who work in this ministry. It’s a wonderful community of very diverse people coming together around this particular need.

KS: How can people get more involved with Prison Fellowship? Surely not everyone can be cut out for visiting prisoners?

EC: Not everybody is called to be inside a prison. It’s like any other task that one undertakes. If you don’t know what you are doing you may flounder. We train people. If you understand the rules, the dos and don’ts, you will do better. But there are different ways of being involved in prison ministry. You can work with families, mentor a young person, one can help with the homework in a family with a single mom. There are lots of ways of helping those families impacted by crime. And of course there are the victims of crimes who often are as neglected or feel as marginalized or are afraid. Often our biggest fear is of getting involved.

KS: It is a bit intimidating, the thought of being involved in ministry with criminals.

EC: Well, it is astonishing how often a family has been impacted by crime that would not be readily apparent. Our workers speak to a wide range of churches. Afterwards someone often comes up and says “That could have been me,” or someone has been a victim or hurt. We’re not that far away as a community from the criminal justice system and those in it as we may think. But everyone has a bit of this sense of fear of the lack of security in the community. Adding to that is a bit of a disconnect we feel as the government steps in on the part of the victim to prosecute the criminal. The community doesn’t actually get to feel any safer. The victims never really feel restored in any way.

KS: I would think that is one important thing our faith could offer to the system – the radical idea of restoration.

EC: There are Communities of Restoration in various forms in prison ministries around the world. They are faith-based communities for people who have been through their sentencing but want to rehabilitate. There is a huge parallel here in Canada with the aboriginal healing lodges. We’ve been anxious to see if a model could be used here in Canada for people who want a spiritual component in their restoration. It looks as if we may be able to do at least a halfway house or a transition house. To have that kind of restoration in a community that is based on a set of principles we agree on is really great.

KS: In your work, you are with what I assume is a fairly wealthy reality in Oakville, Ontario, and also with prisoners. Is there anything in common between those two extremes?

EC: Everyone has the longing to know God. That doesn’t really change with economic background. It’s a God-created search for God. I think success can mask unhappiness. We can almost inoculate ourselves from the needs of the world, the tragedies of the world and the deep joys of the world. Success allows us to put our confidence in the fact that our money can buy our way out of situations. I don’t even mean wealthy. Just “I’m OK.” It allows us to say “I’m the one who is in charge here.” It’s a very fragile state, which of course I found out.

KS: Yes, in 2002 people in Ontario anyway were hearing about your very public dismissal from Hydro One. The next time most of us heard about you, you had an M.Div. in hand and were wearing a clerical collar. Tell us a bit about that?

EC: I had thought for several years about going into full-time ministry. I kept putting it off. I wonder if that hadn’t happened if I would have taken the plunge. You can go along and think “I’m saying my prayers in the morning, I’m going to church and I’m on the right track.” You can be blinded to the fact you are taking on so much, skimming the surface and drawing on that well of spiritual resources. When I lost my job I was depleted. I was tired. I was reaching really deep into that well of spiritual support, and God was there for me.

KS: Some of your friends must have been a bit surprised when you and your family moved into seminary housing and you started your studies?

If I can help someone … I am happy to share my personal journey.

EC: I think sometimes people shake their heads in wonder and sometimes they nod in recognition and wonder what it would take for them to make that kind of commitment. I do feel privileged, although surprised, I’m in a position that I can speak about my faith. If there’s something in my experience that can speak to other people to explore their relationship with God, I’m happy to do it. It’s the most important part of my life. If I can help someone in that exploration I am happy to share my personal journey.

KS: Public opinion as I understand it now acknowledges that you suffered a virtual character assassination when you were fired from Hydro One. But I’m assuming not everyone in the Christian community is on board with your decision to sue Hydro One and the individual who fired you for millions of dollars?

EC: I did some soul-searching, but I was strongly encouraged to put my case forward. I’ve had moments of doubt as time has gone by when I hear the conflicting arguments that I should simply forgive, and that to forgive means dropping the case. I have concluded in response that I do forgive but I’m not sure forgiveness means dropping accountability.

There are people on both sides of the spectrum. Some would think it inappropriate for me not to stand up for my rights under the code of human rights. Others would say it doesn’t matter what happens to us, right or wrong, Christians should never solve their problems inside the secular system or use the courts. Whatever happens, I think what was really an important aspect of those months of trauma, doubt, embarrassment and humiliation was that it wasn’t me who had to uphold me. It wasn’t my strength. It was God.

KS: What is the most rewarding part of your work now?

EC: Prison Fellowship volunteers dropped off gifts to the wife and children of a man in prison. And they invited her to church. The husband later told me that changed his wife’s life. I’m sure the volunteers had no idea. From their point of view all they did was wrap a gift, drop it off and invite the family to church. And now here is this gentleman speaking to me and saying what an impact it had on a life and a family. We hand what we do over to God and say “Help me do the right thing.” With God’s help, that’s what really results in a significant life.

Karen Stiller is associate editor at Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2008.




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