- Special Guest -
As you know, I'm very involved in social justice and Human rights issues. Well, today I welcome a man who has been on a similar mission for more than three decades - Ron Nikkel. I interviewed Ron asking what I call my 'toppest questions'. Ron, a Canadian, has visited more than 1200 prisons in 120 countries.
Welcome, Ron ...
Tell us about you and what you do.
I am passionate about justice. For thirty two years I was the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship International (PFI) a global movement of people who are motivated to treat prisoners, ex-prisoners, families, and victims as Jesus would – with love and grace. I began my work when PFI was just beginning as a small network of PF organizations in 5 countries. During the past 32 years we have grown into a community of organizations in 127 countries.
Primarily, aside from leading the movement, I have focused on challenging the prevailing assumption among criminal justice officials, political leaders, community leaders, and pretty much everyone that imprisoning people is about doing justice. It is not! During my time with PFI I’ve visited more than 1200 prisons in over 120 countries and met with prisoners, families, victims, and community leaders trying to make a difference in how we do justice.
Our work is essentially a three pronged strategy: The transformation of offender attitudes and behaviour, the reconciliation of relationships (victim and offender, offender and family, offender and community) broken or damaged by crime or injustice, and the restoration of offenders through justice that heals the damage done by crime and enables the offender to be reintegrated into the community.
Aside from my vocation I am a sailor and outdoors person. My wife and I, and our Border Collie, live on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia (Canada) and we try to spend as much time there as we can, especially now that I have stepped out of the executive leadership. I also enjoy writing and have published a couple of books ( “Your Journey with Jesus” and “Radical Love in a Broken World”) as well as writing a weekly blog or reflection on issues of faith and life. Justice is central to what I write about.
What was the happiest moment of your life?
I am generally a very happy person. Some years ago a fellow sailor was dying of cancer and yet he always seemed upbeat and unlike a lot of people who suffer, he was more interested in the other person than talking about his situation. I asked him about this one day and he said, “Ron, every day is a diamond, some are polished and some are not – but it is a diamond.” He said it well and that is really how I approach life. Each day is a gift, it is all I have.
Of course there are some very memorable and happy moments along the way such as my marriage to Celeste and our life together; finding our property on the island; seeing a glimmer of hope in the eyes of an inmate who realizes that someone actually cares about them; having a judge express appreciation for being nudged out of complacency with the status quo of “justice”; being awarded the silver medallion for my contributions toward reforming the prison system of the former Soviet Union; completing a challenging sail – the list goes on and no single moment stands out as the “happiest”. Every day has its happy moments to be savoured and treasured.
What was the saddest moment?
I’m by no means an optimist in spite of what I’ve said about being a happy person. Personally, I regret some of my failures in leadership and huge mistakes I’ve mad that have hurt other people. Those are sad moments and while I could continue to beat myself up over those kinds of things I have a choice to either grovel in them or move on by learning from them. I’ve tried to do the latter.
Generally what makes me sad though is man’s inhumanity to man and injustice. I suppose it is not so much sad as angry-sad. When I walk into a dreadful prison in Madagascar to which we’ve sent a shipment of desperately needed medicine for suffering inmates, and those medicines are held up by petty bureaucrats demanding bribes while men and women are dying in the prison. I weep for the dying in the infirmary and I am outraged by the injustice that is caused by greedy selfish officials in positions of authority.
I weep for the two young girls I met who were living in the streets outside a prison in Nepal because their father was locked up and their mother disappeared. The neglect and abuse they were subjected to as the unintended yet common consequence of a parent being imprisoned for a petty crime is unconscionable. Makes me angry.
What surprised you most?
Most recently what has surprised me most was an unexpected outpouring of gratitude for my leadership, from people around the world when I stepped down as Chief Executive. I was caught off guard, not realizing just how much people appreciated my leadership and how many friends I have.
Our Board of Directors was meeting in Costa Rica at the time and had organized a “retirement” dinner for me. As I walked into the room I was overwhelmed to see that my closest friend over many years had flown in for the occasion. Friendship and love can’t be taken for granted and are always surprising to me. Deep friendship over many years is a rare thing, especially among men. Loving friendship is so very different from the superficial and emotional things we tend to label as being love.
Forgiveness has also surprised me as when a woman decides to forgive the man who sexually traumatized and murdered her daughter. There is no rationale for that, it seems so unwarranted and illogical, and yet I have seen it repeatedly like a flash of grace against a backdrop of evil and retribution. And when a person, even my wife, unilaterally forgives me for something hurtful I’ve done or said it surprises me because I know I don’t deserve it.
So I suppose it is gifts like friendship, love, and forgiveness that are the biggest surprises, unexpected blessings in my life.
What was your greatest disappointment?
My biggest disappointment is with the parochialism of some of the national leaders in our organization. I’ve been most frustrated by and disappointed by key leaders in our movement who are concerned only for their own positions and interests and refuse to see the big picture or don’t have a passion for the cause. I expect more from those who lead our organization in wealthy countries like America, Canada, and the UK – and when they put their own interests ahead of people who are suffering incredibly around the world I’ve been sorely disappointed.
Of course I’ve also been very disappointed with myself at times when I have not had the courage to speak up or act – like the time I was hosted by the head of the Chilean prison system during the time of President Pinochet. Prisons were places of torture, people were being arbitrarily arrested and then “disappearing” – I accepted the charade of hospitality – the steak and wine and dancing girls – but I was afraid to give voice to the voiceless victims of injustice.
Who did you misjudge? Why?
Before I went to work for him I misjudged Chuck Colson (President Nixon’s Watergate “hatchet man”). I thought he was an arrogant SOB who was using religion for self-redemption in the aftermath of his imprisonment. But he stayed the course and in spite of his residual “toughness” and “marine corps” mentality he was a man whose life made a huge impact on me and I admired him.
What or who was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been and continues to be that of helping people understand what justice really is. People tend to think that justice is the forensic determination of a persons guilt or innocence and the consequent punishment of the guilty. I’ve spent my life working at helping people understand that justice is not an idea or a legal concept but a relationship. Injustice (and crime) is what people do to each other, how people hurt each other. To pursue justice as a matter of punishment or retribution only inflicts more hurt – on the offender, on the offender’s family, and ultimately on the community.
I am continuing to think and speak and work toward helping people understand and do justice in ways that encourage the offender to take responsibility, that facilitate relationships becoming reconciled, and that help the offender become connected or re-connected in a supportive community.
In the midst of this the biggest challenge is the church. The church in many countries by and large tends to be more judgmental and critical and unkind toward offenders than one would expect. Of all people Christians should be more grace oriented than others because they believe in forgiveness. It is a huge challenge.
What has been your biggest regret?
Tending to get too wrapped up in the details and not spending more time working on the over-arching issues. I could have delegated more responsibility to others instead of trying to make or control decisions and their implementation. I could have focused more on multiplication of impact instead of addition.
What would be your dying comment? Why?
In a word - thank you!. Life, each day is a beautiful gift even if some days seem like a diamond in the rough.
Who or what stunned you the most?
Beauty stuns me whether natural beauty like Cape Breton Island where I live or the Great Barrier Reef; or music like Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony”; and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; or literature like Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”; or performances like the ice-dancing of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue during the Olympics; or courageous people who dare to make a difference like Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or Pope Francis. These have stunned me and are stunning.
What would you like written on your tombstone? Why?
This is the great question of life. I’ve tried my best to answer the question and it is the question I want to leave people with.
Who would you rather have not met? Why?
I’ve been disgusted with some people, repulsed by others, and angered by more. But I would not say that I’d rather we hadn’t met because in one way or another I’ve learned from them and hopefully I’ve been able to nudge them in some small way toward truth and goodness – even the head of General Pinochet’s prison system in Chile.
Who were you most envious of? Why?
I wish I had Richard Branson’s wealth or Bill Gates’ – money isn’t everything and I would not trade my life for theirs, but if I had their resources and could focus those resources on how the world pursues justice I think it would have made a difference for good.
Who did you forgive – for doing something you never thought you’d forgive?
I’ve so far not been hurt or wronged so badly by someone who I thought was unforgiveable. I’ve held on to a few hurts and grudges for longer than I should have but I try to get over things quickly lest the hurts and insults and feelings of betrayal become so big an emotional and mental focus that they define me.
Sometimes that has been very difficult like when a friend and close colleague who worked for me falsified key reports and misappropriated funds; or a senior staff member who quit without notice just weeks before a huge event and left me “hanging”; or a close friend who betrayed my confidence and publicly humiliated me. These have been painful and difficult situations but in each case I’ve been able to work toward rebuilding the relationship.
What was your greatest moment in your life?
Coming to the realization that Jesus was the most revolutionary person who ever lived.
What is your greatest achievement?
It remains to be seen, but from where I sit right now I think it is the thousands of people around the world who I’ve been able to encourage, motivate, challenge, and guide in seeking and doing justice. It is the ripple effect of that which is the most significant and for which I can only take a catalytic credit.
What personal traits would you like to have in your next life?
Faith, hope, and love – mostly love.
What advice would you give to world leaders?
In the words of the prophet Micah – Do justice, love mercy, and carry yourself with humility before God and man.
What advice would you give to parents today?
Love your kids – spend time with them, play with them, listen to them, and teach them well. The root cause of crime and injustice and inhumanity is not poverty or lack of education or environmental influence but the moral and spiritual formation of children. Parents are responsible.
Who would you choose to be stuck on a desert island with?
Celeste – my wife. We live on an island already and we know about being stuck.
Have any heroes? Why? Who?
My late father was my hero. He was a man who thought deeply, disagreed gently, forgave always, kept learning and adapting, and loved unconditionally.
What are the greatest legacies you will leave behind?
I really don’t know and in a sense it doesn’t matter to me. I’ve done my best and I hope I have made an impact for good through my work and my relationships with the people who’ve been my colleagues and those who have crossed my path.
What’s lacking in the world today?
Love and justice.
Any pearls of wisdom for the rest of us?
Pearls begin as irritations in oyster shells. So I have no pearls to leave, just irritating questions about love and justice and forgiveness. Justice does not begin and end with judges and courts and judgments and prisons but with each of us and how we treat other people including our offenders.
What would be the last sentence you ever write?
I don’t know because it probably won’t be what I would write at this point. I don’t know what I will know or understand or see when I am at the end of my journey. But if I had to hazard a guess it would probably be an expression of gratitude for the gift of beauty, love, and truth.
What inspired you most?
The life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and people who think and speak and act as he did.
Who or what made you laugh the most?
I laugh a lot – my Border Collie makes me laugh when he tries herding the waves on the beach. And most recently a Canadian television parody that compared the Canadian beer fridge to the American beer fridge really made me laugh, possibly because I’m Canadian –
What would be your top three chosen careers in your next life?
I’d like to have the opportunity of doing my career over again. Knowing what I know now and being able to do it a second or third time would be more satisfying than living another career.
What is your prime focus in life today?
Writing and speaking on justice and issues of faith and life.
Do you have any fear of doing something wrong?
Not at all – but if I do I trust that all will be forgiven even as I try to forgive those who wrong me or act wrongfully.
If or when you reflect on your past, can you identify any world events that you believe had a significant impact on you?
Nothing that really stands out.
Do you think one can live a purposeful life without knowing the meaning of life?
Yes. I’ve met a lot of people who live a very purposeful and good life but who don’t even think about the meaning of life other than desiring to make a positive impact in their families, their careers, and community. Many people think they have a purpose in life, don’t know what it is, but try their best to live purposefully.
From your perspective - what is the way forward for the world?
To be serious about loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves Leaders and nations who commit to seeking justice for all, resolving conflicts without violence, and caring for the vulnerable and marginalized people as if they were next door.
Imagine that you were given a chance to live again, what will you do first and what will you do differently?
I cannot imagine this and I cannot imagine doing things differently apart from being able to “do-over” where I’ve failed and made mistakes.
Do you have a bucket list? Tell us more.
I’d like to build a log chapel on the mountainside of our property in Nova Scotia. I’d also like to write the definitive book on what justice really looks like when justice is done. And I’d like to do a bit more sailing with my friends.
Any great claims to fame?
I’ve been in more prisons in more countries around the world than anyone I know. More than 1200 different prisons in 120 countries and counting.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the opportunity of sharing my thoughts and my experience.
Clancy's comment: Many thanks for your honest answers, and for sparing the time, Ron. It's been a pleasure to catch up with you. Keep up the great work.
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