I’m not sure how I got this, but as you know, when you begin cleaning to move you find all sorts of stuff you didn’t know you had, or stuff that you’ve forgotten about. This is a great article about my late uncle Addison Klassen.

This article was originally published in the October 2007 edition of the Mennonite Brethren Herald.

Freedom For The Captives

I met Addison in prison. I’d been locked up for nearly three years when we met and I’d already changed from the man I’d once been. The change had not been for the better. I was bitter and angry and hated almost everything and everyone. I was a self-pitying fool. Still, I’d had two attempts on my life by then, so maybe the change was understandable. Prison tends to harden a man’s soul.

Surprisingly, Addison met my attitude with kindness and even agreed with much of my unflattering assessment of Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg.

Addison was different that way. Although he worked at the prison, he was unlike most of the other staff. He seemed to care. An intelligent, sensitive man, he had an inner strength that belied his advanced years. And though his snowy white hair and sparkling eyes gave him a St. Nicholaslike appearance, you could tell that this man had toughness about him.

I had no idea how tough.

One day Addison took me aside for a private conversation. He was a volunteer with a visitation group for men inside prison; men who had no one else. He was currently without a pairing inside the prison and wanted us to match up.

I explained to him that my wife and children still visited on a regular basis and I was far more fortunate than many of my fellow inmates. I suggested he meet someone who had no visits at all.

He smiled at that; but it was a sad smile. Addison had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer but still wanted to be part of the visitation program.

“It wouldn’t be fair to a fellow if I made friends with him and then went off and died,” he explained. “I thought since you’ve got a family supporting you, it wouldn’t bother you as much. I’d really appreciate it.” Then he flashed another grin.

It was my first glimpse of Addison’s strength. It made me feel ashamed, somehow. I certainly hadn’t met the trials of my own life with that sort of grace.

There was so much more to learn, though.

I found out how Addison had taught for 10 years at MBCI, Winnipeg’s Mennonite high school. During that time, he and his wife, Gerta, raised six children and fostered 14 more (two of whom they’d also adopted). Later, they worked with Mennonite Central Committee and became founders of El Dad Ranch. It was a place where mentally challenged men with criminal backgrounds could find another chance at life. It wasn’t a popular project at the time, but Addison didn’t care.

At one point, the two of them drove a donated RV across the country to carry a message of prison reform and restorative justice. The “Justice Van” was on the road for nearly a year. It couldn’t have been easy.

Their commitment to all these things was borne out of an abiding faith in the potential of all human beings and in the grace of God. Addison lived and demonstrated this faith in his every action.

Strangely, Addison never talked to me about faith or God during our visits. That wasn’t his style. He followed St. Francis’ advice in that regard: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.”

We became good friends. He was true to his word and came to visit me at Stony Mountain on a regular basis. During that time, I learned something about faith and
about strength. I discovered that true strength wasn’t a function of how much money or power you had; it didn’t rise from physical prowess, either. Strength like Addison’s came from being at peace with yourself and in your relationships with others and with God.

I once asked Addison why he’d done it – why he’d spent his life helping people like me.

He shrugged, smiled and shook his head. “It was about thirty years ago, I suppose. I was teaching a Bible study about the Good Samaritan and how we should all show mercy and care for those who are mistreated. One young man challenged me and said it was easy to say, but really hard to do. He was right. I figured I’d take him up on the challenge and that’s when I left teaching and started doing other things.”

Addison died September 1, 2007. He was a member of River East MB Church, Winnipeg.

Tim Collins was a senior civil servant until convicted of serial bank robbery. He spent four years in Stony Mountain penitentiary and has written several articles aimed at raising awareness of issues related to Canada’s penal system.