Some of our Sisters have participated in the work of “Friends on the Outside” (FOTO). FOTO is a non-profit prison ministry organization that was started in 1999, and Sr. RéAnne Letourneau, pm. has been involved since 2007. She testifies in what follows, that being involved in prison ministry has been one of the greatest gifts in her life and has helped her journey through her own areas in life where she needed freedom. She also shares of the transformation that came about in the life of Rik McWhinney, an ex-inmate who became a very dear friend of the Sisters and touched the lives of many people in Regina and throughout the province.
“While it’s true that we try to be the face, hands and heart of God (the Word made flesh), my experience has been that it’s actually Jesus that I meet through the inmates. That’s why Matthew 25 is our motto: ‘when I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick and in prison you visited me.’ Prison ministry is for me a Gospel mandate!” (Sr. RéAnne Letourneau)
Here is a powerful story of one of our members of FOTO who passed away last year. His life and death has forever changed me! This was written by a friend Sheena Greer.
See you in hell.
These words left Sister RéAnne Letourneau feeling unsettled. They were tattooed on the right hand of a man named Rik McWhinney, a former inmate who had spent most of his life in prison. The pair met in 2009 through Friends on the Outside (FOTO), an organization that works with former inmates to provide comfort, care, friendship, and forgiveness. Over the next decade, Sister RéAnne’s friendship with Rik profoundly transformed both of their lives. In time, she would learn all about Rik’s many tattoos, and that his life had already taken him through hell and back.
Rik’s suffering began when he was just a little boy, where he lived in a household filled with abuse and trauma. At age 9, he was sent to reform school, where he faced further physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. He remembers praying for God to rescue him, but his prayers were left unanswered. As a young adult, Rik’s torment grew fierce. In and out of jail, he was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Here, his anger spiraled out of control, exploding in violent outbursts. He spent years in solitary confinement, tormented by his guilt and hatred.
But Rik began to see the futility of unleashing his rage on others, who like him, had their own tumultuous reasons for being in jail. Instead of fighting, Rik focused on educating himself and trying to make life less horrific for other prisoners. He read books and wrote poetry. He fought for prison reform and became a peer counsellor. He studied everything from theology to vet medicine, and even created an animal therapy program for feral cats. He organized fundraisers for women’s shelters, animal sanctuaries, and children’s charities. Rik challenged and changed himself, and after decades of incarceration, was finally a free man. However, after 34 years and 4 months in prison, freedom was little more than an empty word.
The prison walls were gone, but the chains on his heart remained. Rik’s experiences left him with PTSD, ailing health, and the bitter stigma of incarceration. But perhaps most painful was Rik’s disbelief that anyone, let alone God, could ever truly care for him.
But Sister RéAnne did. And despite her initial uneasiness, the two became fast friends. First, they bonded over the music of Johnny Cash. Then, over the mutual admiration of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Soon, Rik became more like a brother than a stranger. RéAnne and others at FOTO refused to see Rik only for his brutal past, but dared to look into the eyes of a murderer and see the soul of a man. And through this unconditional love, his life would be transformed.
It was the summer of 2018, nearly a decade after the two met, Rik told RéAnne he had something very important to talk to her about. Despite the progress that Rik had made, his old demons seemed to follow him. His health was deteriorating, and RéAnne was worried. But Rik’s news for RéAnne was astonishing: after years of questioning if God existed, or if God could ever forgive him, Rik had decided he wanted to be baptized.
And surrounded by those who cherished him most, Rik was immersed in God’s love and baptized into the Catholic faith. In this moment, Rik’s heart and soul would escape the hell of his past and be set free. But his time here on Earth was coming to end.
Eight weeks to the day after his baptism, Rik passed away. With Sr. RéAnne, Sr. April, Ruth Robillard and friends from FOTO at his side, he transitioned from this world into God’s arms, finding the peace he fought for all his life.
“My journey with FOTO and Rik has been a pascal mystery experience and has given me a new perspective of how justice is a key and necessary component of compassion.
Trauma and pain can cause people to hurt others, and we must have compassion for victims as we seek restoration and healing for those who have caused pain.
My work with FOTO, and my friendship with Rik has allowed me to walk this compassionate journey towards healing, justice, and restoration alongside those who God has placed on our path, especially those who have suffered pain and trauma.“ (Sr RéAnne Letourneau)