The church had both the knowledge that people need a community to become whole as well as the people to help give the idea shape; how could the two be brought together in the interests of a truer justice? – John Bender
Midwifing Restorative Justice in Canada
(adapted from an online MCC website article)
In 1968, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario appointed a study committee to explore alternative ways for dealing with criminal offenders. Committee chair Doug Snyder recalls, “We wanted to try to bring into reality a way for our congregations to be more involved in the ‘hands-on’ way of meeting human need.”
That same year, Mark Yantzi walked into Snyder’s office. “We need a pioneer,” stated Snyder. “Do you have interest?” Yantzi, agreeable, was placed as an MCC-supported volunteer with the Waterloo Region Probation Department. His new assignment was to develop community programming that could include volunteers from churches or the community. Eventually he was joined by MCC worker Dave Worth.
Quoting now from John Bender’s article (first printed in 1986; reprint online 2019)…
“Up to 1974, this team continued to think about how forgiveness and starting over without forgetting the past could both be central concepts in an alternative to the criminal justice system as it was operating. The church had both the knowledge that people need a community to become whole as well as the people to help give the idea shape; how could the two be brought together in the interests of a truer justice?
“The search for an alternative ranged from examining existing church and non-church programs aimed at working with current and former inmates to developing programs that emphasized resolution outside of court through community mediation.”
“(During this time of experimentation) the team’s effort received the full support and encouragement of Yantzi’s superior, John Gaskill, who was familiar with British penal reform of the early ’70s in which experimentation was being made with community service sentences for certain offenders. Judge Ross Fair, then a family court judge, also gave support in providing orientation for some of the volunteers found in the churches. The team members, consultants, and volunteers themselves helped give shape to an idea that was about to be born—an idea that had reconciliation as its goal.”
May 22, 1974 Crime-storming and Brain-storming
When two 18-year old men rampaged the small town of Elmira, Ontario, in the pre-dawn hours of May 22, 1974, they hardly imagined that their willful damage would help uncover a new way to deal with criminal offenders. 22 properties, with total damages totaling nearly $2,200 in losses (about $12,000 in today’s economy), included damaged cars, slashed tires and broken windows. Assigned to their case were two MCC workers, Mark Yanti and Dave Worth.
Again, direct quoting from Bender’s article (next four paragraphs):
At that time Yantzi was a probation-parole officer for Waterloo Region in Ontario. During a meeting on May 22, 1974, to discuss the Christian response to shoplifting, the locally famous Elmira case came up for discussion. “Wouldn’t it be neat for these offenders to meet the victims,” Yantzi said to the group. “I knew that didn’t happen, that it was a pie-in-the-sky idea. But it was a safe audience, so I said it and then dropped it. I went on with the pre-sentence report I had prepared.”
Dave Worth, another participant in the meeting, said, “I am ready for the pie-in-the-sky idea.” He liked the practical peacemaking implications of offenders and victims getting together. Yantzi, however, did not think such an idea had a chance with the judge and recalled feeling the tension of, “Do I want to risk my reputation in suggesting a negotiated settlement between victims and offenders that has no basis in law?”
Six days later, on May 28, the Elmira youths each pleaded guilty to 22 different charges. Neither had any prior criminal record and Yantzi gained a favorable impression of the youths from the interviews. Because of the large number of people involved in the case, he suggested in his report that “some therapeutic value” could come from “confrontation” between the offenders and the offended. Judge G.H. McConnell was not immediately enamored with the idea of “therapeutic value.” One of his first responses was, “That can’t be done,” Yantzi recalls.
Yet the face-to-face meeting of offenders with victims to work out restitution is what Judge McConnell ordered. Accompanied by their probation officer or the volunteer coordinator, the boys knocked on the doors of the 22 people who had suffered willful damage at their hands. They were able to contact all but two, who had moved. (End of direct quoting.)
In the door step conversations, apologies were made and restitution amounts were negotiated. Many colorful stories exist regarding these exchanges. Repayment of all losses was fulfilled by the two men within the next year.
The VORP Jump to Indiana
A year later (1975) the first Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) was started by Yantzi and Worth. Seeds of this effort took first root in the United States in Elkhart, Indiana, 1977-78, through a program managed by Howard Zehr and conducted in partnership with Mark Umbreit.
Initially through Mennonite church networks, VORP programs in the early 1980s spread throughout North America and were largely funded within church budgets. As partnerships with government and community agencies strengthened, funding sources and stakeholder groups diversified. By 1990, there were approximately 150 dialogue-based programs in the United States and Canada. The Victim Offender Mediation Association (VOMA), seeded in the early ‘80s, served as a network of support and education.
For a review of ecclesial investments and supports for this rise of VORP programming in the late 1970s into the 1990s, read “Emergence of Restorative Justice in Ecclesial Practice” by Thomas Noakes-Duncan, featured at the top of the Ecclesial Roots page.
Read also an early newsletter from April 1984 by Ron Claassen (Fresno) when the VORP office was burglarized. Ron also shares about a national meeting of 18 VORP directors who estimated the existence of 30 VORPs in 1984 in the USA. That meeting discussed the pros and cons of “reconciliation” being a primary goal of VORP programs. Finally, it is interesting to note that the only underlined sentence in the newsletter is: “Please have this information put into your church bulletin.” This pertained to an upcoming training for volunteer facilitators (8 hours total).
Mark Yantzi is also the author of a classic book, Sexual Offending and Restoration, which was first published in 1989 by Herald Press which predates Zehr’s Changing Lenses (1990, also Herald Press).
What does “Anabaptist” mean? Anabaptists of the 16th century Reformation promoted a more radical break of the Protestant movement from state institutions, advocating the baptism and church membership of adult believers, nonresistance, religious liberty, and peacemaking practices within a free, communal church and toward society. Mennonites are the largest contingent of Anabaptists that still operate today; expressions of Christian faith through servanthood and peacemaking are central.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Mennonites have played a leading role in pioneering new works of peacemaking and conflict resolution. Other “peace church traditions” such as the Quakers and Brethren have also been influential in these areas involving dialogue and reconciliation. American black churches, as witnessed during the Civil Rights era, represent a strong tradition of merging peaceful means into justice processes.
compiled by Ted Lewis