It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of a treasured friend, colleague and co-worker at Shalem. Bruce Schenk died on January 16, 2023, after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 69.
Shalem would not be the dynamic place that it is today without the guidance, support, wisdom, dedication and training generously given by Bruce.
In 2004, when I became Executive Director of Shalem, Shalem was looking for new directions in mental health. Bruce was the first person I brought in to present to Shalem’s Board and Staff—specifically, I wanted him to introduce the idea of Restorative Practice.
Why Bruce? Bruce was a Lutheran pastor and chaplain. After pastoring a church, he served as a chaplain at Brookside Youth Detention Centre in Cobourg, where he introduced restorative justice into the institution. Members of violent gangs from Toronto—the Bloods and the Crips—met each other in profound ways through the restorative justice encounters that Bruce facilitated at Brookside. From there, in the mid-2000s Bruce served as the Lead of the Ontario Government’s team for implementing the restorative justice provisions of Canada’s new Youth Criminal Justice Act. And Bruce had recently developed an innovative practice that was unique in the field of restorative justice: the “Hosting” concept. With “Hosting”, a faith community offers its facility and volunteers to “host” the restorative justice events that take place in their neighbourhoods. The driving question was: “wouldn’t it be something if faith communities acted as the hosts of the reconciliation processes happening in their communities?”
Bruce’s presentation “took”. Shalem implemented the Hosting Program across southern Ontario, hosting especially Family Group Decision-Making in child protection services (a form of Restorative Practice). The program provided a real service for several years. It was multi-faith (one of our Hosting sites was the Pickering Islamic Centre). It connected faith communities to the child protection and criminal justice systems, and by removing practical logistical barriers it encouraged those systems to do more restorative practice. Moreover, it was a non-threatening way to introduce restorative practice to faith communities. Shalem could no longer operate the program for funding reasons, but to this day it remains one of my favourite Shalem programs.
In 2007 Bruce was a key participant in the founding retreat of Shalem’s FaithCARE (Faith Communities Affirming Restorative Practices) program. Since 2007, taking and adapting what was being learned by the recent introduction of restorative practice into school settings, FaithCARE has worked with over 100 churches from 10 denominations all across Canada, and trained hundreds of people in Canada and the United States. FaithCARE works to support faith communities to strengthen and enhance relationships, and to repair harm when relationships in faith community settings become broken. Bruce developed our FaithCARE training and remained vitally active in FaithCARE until his very last days.
But Bruce’s influence went far beyond anything “programmatic”. Bruce taught us that restorative practice is not a program but a way of thinking and being—a framework, an understanding of what it is to be human—where the focus is not on adversarial processes but on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationships and build stronger, more connected communities. Shalem has imbibed that restorative practice framework into its DNA—how staff relate to each other, and Boards, and how Shalem relates to communities and to the people we are privileged to work with. It’s an expression of how to live out Jesus’ command that we love one another.
In the mid-2000s Bruce became the founding Director of the Canadian office of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP-Canada). From that position, he became a leading figure in the growth of Restorative Practice in Canada. Public, Catholic and Christian school boards across Canada, from coast to coast, have benefited from his training, mentorship, guidance and support. Thanks to Bruce’s visionary and courageous leadership, today IIRP Canada is a vibrant service with nine staff members, now ably led by Pat Lewis.
When Bruce retired from the IIRP three years ago, he dedicated himself entirely to Shalem’s FaithCARE ministry, which he understood to be the culmination of his life’s work. This past July, with Anne Martin, his close colleague and Shalem’s Director of Restorative Practice Services, Bruce co-led Train the Trainer training for a number of senior staff members of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, enabling them to deliver the FaithCARE training to church members across North America.
Faith in God was deeply important to Bruce. His faith infused his understanding of human relationships. He and I shared so much about our lives and we presented together at international conferences. He touched so many of us, and our FaithCARE Steering Group members miss him terribly. FaithCARE is producing four small books about building healthy relationships in churches. Bruce’s draft of Book 1 remains on his desk. Our FaithCARE Steering Group—now minus one member—will finish that book, his last will and testament to us all.
Bruce leaves behind his loving wife, Vicki, three devoted daughters and several grandchildren.
Until we meet again, my dear friend.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., former Executive Director of Shalem (retired), is a Member of Shalem’s FaithCARE Steering Group