Life in India seems to be full of adventure, but growing up in Canada had its excitement too.
My Dad was never one to shy away from life’s craziness, especially if it meant helping someone. When I was a kid he set aside a career in academics to take a job at a prison. After a short stint as a guard he made the dramatic switch over to part-time chaplain, a pastor to prisoners. He was in that role for about ten years, during which time he became friends with some very interesting men. One of those men was a guy named Peter.
Peter was a sweet man with a beautiful smile. He was also a criminal. As kids, we didn’t know how these men ended up in prison, and it was a strict rule that we didn’t ask. Whatever Peter had done in his sordid past, somehow it didn’t matter to us. It’s hard to explain, but I really can’t remember that we thought less of him because of his crime. I liked Peter and I have fond memories of his time with our family, especially the time he took me fishing, just the two of us, on the river. We were kids, and we followed our Dad’s lead, and my Dad trusted people because he loved them.
My Dad, of course, did most of the relating when it came to these men. But we had our chance too. Some of them, including Peter, stayed with us in our home from time to time while they were out on parole. It was part of their rehabilitation, their healing. It was good for them to be a part of a family. It was good for us, too, to get to know them. My Dad walked a fine line in his role as chaplain. He was a part of the system, the outside, but he was different too. He found his way into the hearts of many on the inside. Those on the outside often viewed him as soft. Those on the inside, of course, probably wondered if they could really trust him. In time, he earned that trust with many of them, but that didn't mean that he wouldn’t help out the police or prison authorities if they needed him, which on occasion they did. I remember the days on our farm when the police cars would regularly roll onto our property. The officers would have their chats with Dad and then be gone.
If you measured the love that others had for my Dad it was the guys on the inside who loved him the most. Some of them had never been trusted like that before. They were fiercely loyal to my Dad, and that was a big part of the reason why we as kids felt safe with them. I remember an occasion being out in public with one of the men by my side. I felt so secure, knowing that if anyone tried to harm me or take advantage of me they would have to deal with my Dad’s friend first. We were the only family that some of these men ever had.
Peter was a baker and he was making honest money working in a bakery. He was in the midst of a successful transition from the inside to the outside. He was also engaged to be married to a very sweet lady named Claudette who believed in his transformation. Still, Peter was vulnerable.
One evening my parents were out at their friend’s place in another part of town. In the midst of their visit, the phone rang. The friend answered it but then turned to my Dad with bewilderment, saying, “It’s for you, Herb. It’s the police.”
The police officer spoke with urgency and clarity, “Herb, we have a hostage situation and we need your help.”
Within minutes the doorbell was ringing. As Dad scrambled for his shoes and coat, he asked my Mom and their friends to pray. Moments later he was in the back seat of a squad car, with sirens screaming, racing through the streets faster than he had ever dreamed of driving.
On the way across town, Dad was briefed on the situation. It involved Peter. He and a few of his friends were in the process of robbing a hotel manager at his personal home, but the police had quickly caught up with them and surrounded the house. In desperation, the robbers kept the police at bay by taking the residents hostage. Among the hostages was a six-year old boy. As the stand-off continued, the police pleaded that the robbers release the child. Eventually, they agreed, but they insisted that they would only hand over the boy to someone they trusted. Peter named their man – Herb Klassen.
It was a precarious privilege, and my Dad did feel honored to be chosen for the task. Of course, he was scared and nervous too, and he couldn’t help but feel sorry for Peter. My Dad knew what the police didn’t know, that Peter had been doing so well on the road to recovery. My Dad had been so hopeful for his friend. Later he would learn that Peter’s friends had convinced him to join them for this one last job. They needed a driver. The easy money would help pay for his wedding.
After arriving at the scene of the stand-off, the police gave my Dad final instructions and fitted his thin frame with a bulky bullet-proof vest, so bulky that my Dad worried that Peter wouldn’t recognize him. Then, from out behind a police car, my Dad emerged to face the house. All alone, he stepped onto the path that led to the front porch. He walked slowly. Behind him was the full support of the police force; in front of him was the full confidence of a friend. But this was hostile territory. There were real guns and real emotions. The whole area was lit by floodlights. All eyes were on him. As he neared the house, all he could see was the barrel of a shotgun pointing out of the broken window of the front door. It was pointed directly at him. He prayed. When he stepped up onto the porch and stood a short distance from the door, it opened slowly and the boy appeared. The six-year old walked out and my Dad took him up into his arms and carried him back to the police.
As far as the stand-off was concerned, my Dad’s role was done. Peter had gotten the boy safely into the arms of his friend. Fortunately, the removal of the child was the beginning of the end. Eventually, the robbers realized that they had no hope of escape and so they surrendered peacefully. Unfortunately, for Peter, this episode halted his recovery and marked his sad return to prison. Of course, it also meant that the wedding was off and that the dream of a new life on the outside was delayed. On the inside, my Dad would be there for Peter again, to love him and trust him and continue to be his friend.
Peter’s story is only one among hundreds that we could tell from that season of our lives. This particular story provides only a glimpse into Peter’s colorful life, the colors of which are both rich in beauty and dark in pain. My Dad’s simple life of faith and service plays a key role in Peter’s story, as it does in the stories of many more men whose lives became intertwined with his during those years.