Life as it Should Be – A Personal Account of Restorative Justice

May 14, 2021 | Stories from the Diocese

Shawn Weneta received a pardon from Governor Northam
on April 23, 2020 for his work to aid others behind bars as
well as the communities of the Commonwealth. He is the
Legislative Liaison for The Humanization Project where
he has helped to advance significant justice reform
legislation in the Virginia General Assembly, recently
authoring and passing a bipartisan bill to allow for
safe reporting of opioid overdoses.

By Shawn Weneta

May 14, 2021

This La Mancha – what is it like? asks the Duke in Man of La Mancha. An empty place, a desert, a wasteland, replies the prisoner and Cervantes. Such men must come to terms with life as it is,” the Duke suggests.

“I have seen life as it is,” Cervantes replies. “Who knows where madness lies? …maddest of all [is] to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

As a Christian who recently reaffirmed my baptismal vows, I, likewise, reject the suggestion to come to terms with life as it is. You see, for over 16 years, I witnessed life as it is in my own La Mancha, as inmate #1028210 in five of Virginia’s more than thirty prisons.

The chaos of prison is an extraordinary challenge of endurance. Often times it is a place of pain, misery, hunger, and cruelty beyond belief – much like La Mancha. Instantly it becomes very easy to see life as it is, and languish despairing as you mark time.

As a child growing up in the Diocese, I never looked at “life as it is.” Baptized at The Falls Church, and a member of Holy Comforter, Vienna, since the age of four, I had the tremendous privilege to see much of life as it should be. Summers were highlighted by twelve days at Shrine Mont as a St. George’s Camper. At St. G’s, we celebrated Christmas in July, read stories about the selfless Barrington Bunny, and shouted our prayers as one full voice from the cliffs of North Mountain. More importantly, we learned about the value of community and of the many members of the one Body of Christ that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 12.

More opportunities to live out this scripture and my promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons came in mission trips to Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and Rally on the Mount.  The rest of the year it was PYM, EYC, St. G’s Christmas Reunions and acolytes. Life as it should be!

Regrettably, due to my own failings and weaknesses I was unable to appreciate the tremendous blessings I had experienced.  Adulthood soon presented challenges that I was wholly unprepared for. I believed I had countless shortcomings that I was so ashamed of and too embarrassed to admit to myself much less others. I sought to fill those voids with a myriad of ugly and destructive habits and addictions that were not only selfish and illegal, but often came at the expense of others, and ultimately earned me a thirty-year prison sentence for embezzlement. In the process, I betrayed the trust of family, friends, employers, and the people who sought to help me. I had abandoned my faith and all that I wished I stood for. My life and relationship with Christ had become a tangled spool of thread that needed to be untangled.

As I began serving my prison time, I prayed for forgiveness. I yearned for reconciliation. But most of all, I hoped for a restoration of how I had seen life as it should be as a kid learning foundational lessons of life and faith at Holy Comforter, Shrine Mont, and Pine Ridge.

But where would I find that in prison? How could I bring myself to a place where I can ask for those things? How would I confront my own arrogance, manipulation, and the profound sense of sorrow and regret I was living with? How do I confess and atone for what I have done? Where should I start?

Shawn trained rescue dogs while in prison.

For me, I discovered answers to these questions in restorative justice and a rediscovery of faith. Both provide a framework for confession (acceptance of responsibility), repentance (accountability and rehabilitation), atonement (restitution), and forgiveness (reconciliation).

While criminal law holds that it is enough that an “offender” serves their sentence to completion, restorative justice insists that the wrongdoer take responsibility for their actions and be accountable by doing what they can to make things right with the victim of their crimes as well as with the community. This may be by direct action, symbolic action, or both

In light of this, I and Dustin Turner, another person behind bars with me, believed that we could help others in prison learn similar lessons by creating a restorative justice program tailored to the prison environment. We reached out to authors and practitioners and, after years of research and study, we published Mending Fences,’ a six-month victim-oriented rehabilitation program for people in prison. It is now reaching people behind bars in multiple states.

Witnessing people who are incarcerated learn these same lessons of responsibility, accountability, restitution, forgiveness, and reconciliation has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. More importantly, though, I have been blessed to see the light of hope reignited in the eyes of many whom before were seemingly hopeless. Life as it should be!

As I worked to live into my Baptism, I began to see another need amongst the prison population. With two others, we explored a First Aid/CPR certification program through the American Red Cross. We reached out to Virginians for Judicial Reform for assistance in putting the program together. Seven men at the prison are now Red Cross Instructors. They offer training and certification to the general population as well as to reentry program participants who are nearing release.

One of the guides on my own journey of restoration and rediscovery of faith was The Rev. Canon Fletcher Lowe. I came to know him through his monthly prison visits with me and a fellow Episcopalian and Shrine Mont Camps alumnus who is serving an extended prison sentence. I still learn from Fr. Fletcher every time we speak.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons I have learned from him are the significance of my baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being; as well as the Dismissal at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. The common theme in these dismissals is the word “Go.” The Celebrant is dispatching us on a mission to fulfill our baptismal vows, just as Jesus dispatched his disciples into the world to deliver a message of hope and God’s love.

So, too, are we deployed, in every Eucharist, to fulfil the mission of our Baptismal Covenant. The Gospel tells us that Jesus sought out and delivered God’s eternal gift of hope to all, without condition. He broke bread with sinners, prostitutes, and yes, criminals, too. In fact, Jesus’s final act in this life was to bestow the gift of hope upon a condemned criminal who hung on a cross beside him.

Shawn at the Cathedral Shrine of Shrine Mont

As you reflect and plan for your post-pandemic mission of faith, let me encourage you to consider stepping out of what may be your comfort zone by going to one of the La Manchas’ scattered throughout Virginia. Carry the light of hope in the message of Jesus Christ to the empty places, the deserts, and the wastelands that grow men and women of illusion.

As you “Go,” you may be asking some of the same questions I asked at the start of my journey. Do I have the courage to step into a jail or prison? How do I do it? What am I able to contribute to someone in prison? Where do I begin?

  • GraceInside provides chaplain services to the 40,000+ people in Virginia’s state prisons. These chaplains are dedicated servants who rely on community volunteers to meet the increasingly diverse faith needs of the prison population. Volunteers are welcome and always needed.
  • The Good News Jail Ministry works similarly to GraceInside serving the local, county, and regional jails in Virginia.
  • Kairos Ministries has been delivering the gift of the Gospel (and homemade cookies) to people incarcerated in Virginia and across the country for decades.
  • Prison Fellowship International works in prisons and communities around the world to bring restorative justice initiatives and programming to all who are impacted by crime and wrongdoing.
  • Consider an organization like The Virginia Center for Restorative Justice that trains volunteers to facilitate in-prison restorative justice programs.
  • The Humanization Project tells the stories of people behind bars in order to advocate for criminal justice and prison reform legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.
  • Virginians for Judicial Reform not only aids offenders in reentry and civic reintegration efforts, but Director Lisa Spees works tirelessly on several wrongful conviction cases in Virginia and nationwide.

Men and women in prison are in need of all sorts of basic life skills and knowledge. Most don’t know how credit works or how to build it. Many more don’t know how to open a bank account, perform in a job interview, build a résumé, write a business plan, or what an IRA, 401k, or FSA is. Even simple mentorship, guidance, and friendship is invaluable as they transition back into the neighborhoods of the Commonwealth, and seek to contribute in their role as a member of the Body of Christ. Your engagement and acknowledgement of their humanity is the priceless gift of hope. Life as it should be!

In these days of intolerance, global pandemic, and the 24-hour news cycle, it may seem easy to come to terms with life as it is. After all, we only need to turn on the television or scroll through our Twitter feeds to witness the ever-present vitriol, partisanship, violence and unbridled hatred. Even from inside prison walls the outside world oftentimes appears to have become a similarly treacherous and empty place; a wasteland much like La Mancha.

My life in prison wasn’t always an extraordinary challenge of endurance. The message of hope and the redemptive power of God’s love delivered by Fr. Fletcher and the friends and loved ones that sustained me on my journey, alchemized my trauma and pain, and empowered me to once again see life as it should be, both inside prison walls and out, just as I did when I was a Shrine Mont camper, an acolyte, and a missionary.

I encourage you to consider delivering the same blessing of restoration, empowerment, redemption, and hope in Christ’s love that I am so blessed to have received, to the 40,000+ men and women in Virginia’s prisons. Seek treasure where there is seemingly only trash and restore one’s dignity, hope, and faith in humanity through Jesus Christ. Life as it should be!

Shawn Weneta received a Pardon from Governor Northam on April 23, 2020 for his work to aid others behind bars as well as the communities of The Commonwealth. He is the Legislative Liaison for The Humanization Project where he has helped to advance significant justice reform legislation in the Virginia General Assembly, recently authoring and passing a bipartisan bill to allow for safe reporting of opioid overdoses. He is the owner of Frontline Training Associates, providing Red Cross health and safety training and certification to businesses and individuals. He can be contacted at