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Ron Nikkel a Gentle Advocate for the Damned
To improve conditions in prisons, this man is traveling the world.

Ron Nikkel knows the most unloved people on earth, the disgraced, the forgotten, the untouchable. He knows prisoners around the world.

He may have visited more prisons than anyone else. At least 800, he estimates. And in those visits he has seen the humiliation of abandoned men and women who receive scant empathy in life or death.

"They are dreadful stories," says Nikkel, the Canadian who heads Washington, D.C.-based Prison Fellowship International, a Christian organization that improves the lives of inmates with medicine, education and spiritual sustenance.

He has seen harrowing things.

In Zimbabwe: bodies stacked in the prison hallways because there was no room in the mortuary. In 2009, more than 1,000 prisoners in that country died from disease and starvation.

In Ecuador: inmates in prison eight years without appearing before a judge. Their families may not know what's become of them.

Benin: maggots crawling, cells so crowded you can't tell limb from limb, sewage from broken latrines that seep from one floor to the tangle of bodies on the floor below.

The worst may be the stories of children who join their parents in prison because there is no one to care for them outside. Despite his dismay at the inhumanity he's observed, he has to curb any impulse, as he says, to take an Amnesty International approach and "blow this stuff sky-high."

"It would not get us anywhere, it would close prison doors, it would be covered up and we would have no access."

Access has allowed the launch of innovative programs that prepare prisoners for life outside prisons. In Nepal, Prison Fellowship runs homes for the abandoned children of prisoners. In Rwanda, victims and offenders live together in a "reconciliation village," 70 kilometres from Kigali. In Benin, prisoners are learning to run small businesses and skills such as soap- and candle-making, baking and auto mechanics. Despite decades spent visiting some of the world's harshest prisons, "his heart still breaks with the injustices he sees," says John Wilkinson of Youth Unlimited, a Toronto outreach organization, and who attended the University of Winnipeg with Nikkel.

Nikkel, a ruddy faced, youthful looking 63, is an imposing man – six foot one, burly, bearded, wearing a nubby sweater and tweed jacket. There's a reticence in his conversation, evidence of what his friends call his modesty and gentleness. Though his Christian roots are deep – he's building a log chapel at his ocean-side home on Cape Breton – he doesn't quote Scripture and admits he's found it a challenge working in an American, evangelical context.

"Not that they don't have a lot of good stuff to offer, but it's a frame of reference that can be alienating to people outside, people in the secular world."

Which may explain his success in expanding Prison Fellowship International around the globe – despite a modest annual budget of around $4 million (U.S.). The inaugural U.S. office was founded by convicted Watergate crook Charles ("Chuck") Colson in 1976. On Colson's invitation, Nikkel took the shell of the organization, which in 1982 existed in five countries, and has nurtured it so that it's now in 116 countries.

Nikkel was Born in Lethbridge, to a Mennonite family. His father ran the Economy Foods grocery store and was the kind of merchant who would give credit or forgive debt if a customer couldn't pay. He'd take his children (Nikkel is the eldest of a five, including two foster kids) to visit impoverished people living in shanties on Alberta's Old Man River. Once, teenaged Nikkel mocked the town drunk, who was wobbling across the street with a case of beer. His father walked to the man, helped him into his car and drove him home without saying a word. "You don't judge," says Nikkel of his father's conviction. "Everybody matters."

Decades later, Jack Kiervin, a venture capitalist and Prison Fellowship board member, observed a similar scene with a different outcome. "With his height and demeanour, (Nikkel) has all this authority. We were in Dublin, coming out of meeting. I had to get my coat and looked for him. He was sitting on a curb beside a beggar, looking him right in the eye. I waited about ten minutes while he finished. He shook the man's hand and left.

The next day Nikkel met with Ireland's minister of justice. "He sits with powerful people," says Kiervin, "but he's the same as when he's sitting outside the pub in Dublin."

At university, where Nikkel earned a degree in psychology, he met his wife, Celeste, an artist – "she's acerbic, a very down-to-earth woman," says Pat Bennett, a Woodstock, Ontario, bookkeeper who worked with Nikkel in Toronto in the 1970s. In Winnipeg, Nikkel had also been part of a group identified as "Jesus people," hippies more drawn to community activism than teaching and preaching.

After university (later Nikkel earned a graduate degree in theology from Loyola University in Chicago), the couple returned to Lethbridge so Nikkel could join his father's grocery business. But his heart wasn't in it. So when he was invited by a Christian organization in Toronto to work with juvenile offenders in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, he jumped at the chance.

"I couldn't talk about a God who loves them as a loving heavenly father if their own fathers didn't love them," he recalls. "It became something I did, not something I talked about. I had to love those kids."

The stuff you know and believe has to be expressed in how your live your life...

With his reputation for working with juvenile offenders growing, Nikkel was invited as a consultant to Chile, where he was shocked at the hopelessness and poverty in the slums of Santiago and the appalling sight of 100 or so children incarcerated only because had no families.

He had found his life's work, and an expression of his faith.

"Institutional religion never worked (for me) – it's too easy," he says. "You can go to church but that doesn't necessarily connect with the rest of your life or work. The stuff you know and believe has to be expressed in how your live your life ... a life that makes a difference ... "

On his first meeting with Colson in the early '80s, he found the older man arrogant, a view that was modified as they spent more time together. Nikkel agreed to head Prison Fellowship International if Colson could assure him that it would be separate from the U.S. organization and that member organizations around the world would be equal. Colson agreed, and Nikkel set about creating a decentralized community with ownership and funding rooted in each country.

The thought comes to mind: Why devote your life to those who have done wrong, some of whom are repentant and some not?

"It's at the core of the Gospel," explains Rev. Pierre Allard, former head of chaplaincy for the Correctional Service of Canada and former head of a host of other prison organizations.

"It's his own faith that allows him to see that no one should be discounted totally. That you can go very deep inside and realize there is a divine spark ...You cannot be involved with prisoners without seeing the many faces of evil, but also the wounded side of humankind. But when you see the deepest despair, the worst, you also see some can open themselves to the possibility of a new beginning, and you are a pilgrim on their journey."

In Nikkel's view: "I suppose holiness is seen more clearly and distinctly in the lives of people who have been to the bottom in every respect ... I can see it in their eyes and faces even though some of them will never ever touch the green grass of the outside world again."

He abhors the trend in North America to bigger prisons with fewer benefits – televisions, counselling, educational and recreational programs among them.

"Caging people isn't going to make them good. In what condition do you want them to return to the community? What kind of influence do you want them to be under? Their peers? The tougher you are, the more wild crimes, the more status you have. Or do you want alternatives and to divert attention from that toward pure entertainment, education, technical skills, the arts, faith-based stuff?"

Prison Fellowship Canada is now trying to establish a faith-based prison unit in Manitoba.

"Creating conditions that are less comfortable for longer periods of time doesn't change what's going on inside," says Nikkel. "And I want to see changed lives."

Leslie Scrivener is a feature writer for the Toronto Star.

Originally published in the Toronto Star, January 10, 2010.

Used with permission - Torstar Syndication Services. Copyright © 2010

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