Inside Toronto: Prison inmates can find hope and healing through meditation and yoga, students at a local high school found out this week, in a presentation on the work of Sister Elaine MacInnes and her charity, Freeing the Human Spirit.
“Every day, 36,000 Canadians wake up in prison cells,” Cheryl Vanderburg, Freeing the Human Spirit’s program co-ordinator, told her teenage audience at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, Wednesday morning, Nov. 10.
“More than half the people in prison are victims of child abuse. The majority have unstable job history. Every day, I go into prisons and I see kids like yourselves. They’ve done something stupid and gotten caught.”
Vanderburg was a guest speaker during the high school’s annual Peace and Justice Week.
For the majority of prisoners, they want to change. They’ve come from difficult circumstances, said Vanderburg, a yoga instructor.
“We carry a lot of stress in our bodies. Our aim is to help prisoners release some of that stress.”
Freeing the Human Spirit is a charity founded in 2004 by MacInnes, a Zen master and Roman Catholic nun. It works in 22 prisons across Canada and receives letters of thanks from inmates regularly.
“Once your spirit is free, you can make better choices and get on with your life,” wrote one in a letter that Vanderburg read to students.
MacInnes was scheduled to visit the school on Wednesday morning, but the 86-year old Toronto resident came down with the flu. Instead, students learned about MacInnes’ quest to bring inner peace to prisoners by teaching them yoga and meditation through the 2005 documentary, The Fires That Burn: The Life and Work of Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Born into a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, MacInnes joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after moving to New York to study violin at Julliard.
MacInness found herself in Japan on her first missionary assignment where she climbed Mount Hiei, met a monk and went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, a place she called home for eight years. There, she practiced “zazen,” sitting meditation.
In 1976, through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila, MacInnes began teaching meditation to political prisoners, including Horacio “Boy” Morales, an esteemed rebel at the helm of the New People’s Army against dictatorship.
It was this work that attracted the attention of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charitable organization in Oxford, England that teaches yoga and meditation to inmates. In 1993, she became its executive director, helping prisoners come to terms with their tremendous stress.
Her work overseas earned her the Order of Canada in 2001. Three years later, upon her return to Canada, she founded Freeing the Human Spirit.
The third day of the Peace and Justice week programming kicked off with the Freeing the Human Spirit presentation in the auditorium, followed by a talk by representatives from the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest effort by men working to end violence against women.
This year’s focus of the 21-year old initiative was healthy relationships, said school Chaplain and Religion Teacher Elaine Orsini.
Representatives from METRAC, which works to prevent and eliminate violence against diverse women, youth and children, were on hand to lead an interactive discussion about relationships with Grade 9 and 11 students on Monday, Nov. 8. The week also included a visit from Free the Children and a showing of Social Justice documentaries.
“The purpose is to make students aware of the need for peace and justice,” said Orsini of the program, spearheaded by the school’s religion department and sponsored by the student council, “to bring people in to motivate students to become more aware so they can move into action.”
Peace, says Orsini, “has to begin within our own hearts, our homes and our own schools – that’s always been my message.”
See also our review of Sister Elaine MacInnes’s book, The Flowing Bridge.