While as a pastor in Saskatoon I had the chance to learn about an organization called STR8 UP, which offers outreach services, programming, and support to those who have lived or are living criminal street lifestyles and who want to make positive changes in their lives. It began in the 1990’s when Father André Poilièvre, a Chaplain at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre met with two active gang members who expressed their desire to leave their gangs and wanted support from him as they worked to change their lives.
Fr. André came to my parish along with a couple of former gang members who had managed to turn their lives around. While the priest quietly slipped into the background, the two young men spoke confidently for an hour about their troubled upbringing, the gang-life that had become their surrogate family and finally about their desire to live a life of peace and the struggle that it took to attain that dream which they said, “would not have been able to happen without the support of someone like Fr. André and the programming offered by STR8 UP.”
It is easy to write off “bad people”. We tell ourselves that they have made their choices and they will have to deal with the consequences of the life they have chosen. We might even feel some satisfaction when we see them get what it is, we think they deserve. In the scriptures, we do not feel sorry for someone like King Ahab who has been a scoundrel and murderer. But God looks on us with different eyes. God does not condemn us for our past but sees in us the potential of our future and helps to bring us there.
One of the ways that God leads us is through the help of others. King Ahab had the prophet Elijah to set him straight with tough love. In the Gospel today Jesus teaches us, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you”. Jesus reminds his disciples that despite the vast difference that there seems to be between those who love us and those who hate us either personally or with indifference, in the eyes of God we are all the same. We are all created by God and loved by him.
Jesus asks us to look at our enemy the way God does, with love. To put our own hurt aside for a moment and seek to understand the hurt of the other person whose story is unique and that we can only know if we give them a chance to share. We are challenged to offer the forgiveness and mercy that God has so freely given to us, and to allow the other person a chance to see that they can be different, that they can be better.
The STR8 UP members who enter the program are told that changing your life requires 10,000 little steps and that the organization is not there to walk in front to lead, nor behind to push, but to walk beside to assist, accompany, encourage and support.
As Christians, we are not anyone’s saviour, only Jesus has that responsibility. The hard work of change is something that has to be done by every individual themselves. But, reflecting the mercy that we have been offered by God, we can provide a context in which that change can begin, and we can be companions on the journey.