The Story

It all started with a letter from South Africa that said, “I want to share the story of what we experienced with The Return of The Prodigal Son in our Prison Ministry.”

Henri Nouwen’s magnus opus, a story of homecoming, has had a transformative influence since it was first published. Inviting readers to identify with the main characters from the gospel story in Luke 15 and masterfully portrayed in Rembrandt’s painting, Nouwen moves us from rebellious younger son, to resentful older brother, to welcoming, open-hearted father.

After presenting Henri’s reflections to the prisoners, the letter said, “Week by week we experienced, in a very real way, the Father welcoming us back home. Every week we heard that call to turn round, go home, and then to go from being a boy to being a man, from being son to being a father. Joy!”

This letter was more than just an affirmation – it was a call to action!

Executive Director, Karen Pascal contacted Prison Fellowship to share the story and explore ways we could work together to sow this seed and bear more of the good fruit experienced in South Africa.

The Crisis

Did you know fatherlessness is truly a crisis?

One of the prevalent wounds at the heart of incarceration is a broken relationship with one’s father. Passed from one generation to the next, it results in abuse, violence, and seemingly unending cycles of incarceration.

The reality is that children from fatherless homes are:

  • 5 times more likely to die by suicide
  • 32 times more likely to run away
  • 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances
  • 8 times more likely to end up in prison

In prison ministry, the stories of prisoners detailing broken, painful or absent relationships with their father is heard over and over again. This translates to a reluctance to trust the Father heart of God.

Knowing that fathers account for 90% of incarcerated parents and that 60% of prisoners have children under the age of ten, a sense of fatherlessness results in devastating consequences for over 357,000 Canadian children who are the hidden victims of crime.

The Hope

God is using Henri’s teaching to bring deep healing.

Prisoners in 50 Canadian institutions will be invited to participate in a nine-session, in-prison program centered on The Return of the Prodigal Son, with videos featuring that letter writer from South Africa, Denis Jacobs, and an accompanying workbook. Volunteers and chaplains will facilitate dialogue with prisoners aimed at fostering self-awareness, accountability and accepting their responsibility as an earthly father. Materials featuring Henri’s teaching will illustrate the impact of a positive father or male role model on a child’s life – underscoring that it can break generational cycles and offer mental, spiritual, and emotional healing.

Healing deep father wounds will transform generations of Canadians impacted by crime. Fathers who are connected or re-connect with their children during incarceration are less likely to reoffend, creating communities that are safer and reducing crime rates. Children who are connected with their incarcerated parents, and witness their transformation, are more likely to break negative cycles of crime, addiction and incarceration.

The Dream

Pray with us that Canada will be just the beginning! Prison Fellowship across the globe has access to 60% of the worldwide prison population on 6 continents. Let’s dream a God-sized dream to share Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in prisons world-wide!

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.” Psalm 68: 5-6



In Henri’s Words…

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