In prison, John deVries ’66 had a kind of conversion experience that, 35 years later, took him to the top of the world’s largest freestanding mountain.

In the late 1970s, deVries was chaplain at a federal penitentiary in Quebec. He saw the convicted enter with poor social skills that were only made worse by imprisonment. After release, many committed new crimes.

“Punishment is our brute, intuitive response to violation,” he said. “It’s a conversion to realize that punishment is not the final answer. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be prisons. But in prison people never become accountable for what they’ve done. So there’s no change of heart.” 

While looking for a different way of dealing with those who had broken the law, he became a member of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, an interdenominational board in Canada that the Christian Reformed Church helped found in 1972. There he was introduced to the old but largely forgotten concept of restorative justice (see related story “Behind the Bars,” p. 18). 

“Restorative justice is about relationships,” deVries explained. “Criminal justice focuses on guilt and punishment: Who did it? Who’s to blame? Restorative justice focuses on healing broken relationships: Who was harmed? How can we fix it?” 

Those questions apply to more than criminal situations, said deVries, who has also worked as a pastor, a hospital chaplain and the coordinator of Ontario chaplaincies.

“Wherever two or three are gathered, there is conflict. Restorative justice tries to resolve conflict of any kind through respect for everyone involved so that we can have a future together.”

In 2005 the CRC Synod adopted a resolution declaring restorative justice a biblical teaching and in 2009 appointed deVries restorative justice coordinator in Canada, tasked with encouraging churches to practice it in their own congregations and to facilitate it in the larger community.

Persuading people to try this healing approach to conflict resolution is often “a game of inches,” deVries said. If he gets discouraged, he remembers his trip to Rwanda in 2011.

He traveled there with Just Equipping, a group that trains pastors and prison chaplains in the Great Lakes Region of Africa in restorative justice principles and practices. They have developed a careful protocol that brings victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and prisoners who participated in the killings together for conversation. DeVries accompanied two Rwandan pastors who delivered a letter from a prisoner apologizing to his victim’s family and asking to meet. 

“It was an amazing, touching experience,” deVries said. “I thought, ‘If that kind of reconciliation can happen in Rwanda, why not where I live?’ That’s my passion, that’s what all my work is about now.”  

His work for restorative justice is mostly research, presentations, teleconferences and writing. But sometimes it’s athletic. In January, deVries joined an international team of 13 on a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Just Equipping. At sunrise on Jan. 29, they reached the 19,341-foot summit. 

“It was beautiful—and demanding,” said deVries, a veteran of 18 Boston Marathons. “As much as a physical experience, it was a relational experience. Many of us had never met before the climb. But even in stressful situations, we were able to respect one another as image bearers of God. That’s what restorative justice— and Reformed theology—is all about.”