Ed Griffin is a former Catholic priest, a full-time writer, and double-decade volunteer who teaches writing in various prisons in the Vancouver area. He is the author of 3 novels and 2 non-fiction books: Dystopia, The Story Of Prison he co-wrote with an inmate, Mike Oulton. Once A Priest is his autobiography. All Ed’s books are available as Ebooks.
Why did you write a memoir?
I wrote little segments of my life and laid them out on a table, as it were. When I put the pieces together, I saw a pattern. I may have left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1968, but the priesthood hadn’t left me. I kept many of the values I learned in the church – caring for the poor, working for peace, struggling for a better world.
It’s very interesting to write your own story. You discover that you’re not the hero you thought you were. As you look back, you get a fairer picture of reality.
It’s also humiliating. When I left the priesthood, I was 32 years old and I had never been on a date. I was a 32 year-old virgin. I had to learn all about sex and dating. For awhile I dated an ex-nun who could have written her own sex manual.
All the things I had once preached against, like pre-marital sex, went poof into thin air.
I made mistakes, but I survived, mostly because I believed in myself.
What led you to take off the roman collar?
Reason one. I marched from Selma to Montgomery with Doctor Martin Luther King. It was the high point of my life, an inspiring march, led by this hero of a man, who was hated by many in 1965. We marched, we sang freedom songs and we ignored the threats hurled at us from the crowds along the way. I was shocked to see the National Guard with rifles in my own country.
On that march, I felt like a Christian, maybe for the first time. Even though I was an ordained priest, I don’t think I was a Christian. I mean, I didn’t do things because of my commitment to Jesus Christ. But I participated in that march because I believed God made everyone and loved all of us, black or white.
When I returned to my all white parish, I discovered that people had gone to the pastor and the bishop and said, “Either you get rid of that nigger-lover priest or we will never give another dime to the church.”
The bishop caved in and moved me to a parish in Cleveland’s ghetto. This church that was supposed to speak the truth had given way to racism. I was shocked.
Second reason. It’s very hard to leave a job that you love and you spent twelve years preparing for. I entered the seminary when I was thirteen, just going into high school. But someone helped me, gave me the push I needed. I fell in love with a beautiful black woman, a youth worker in the new parish. I was 31 and had never been in love before. I didn’t date the woman, hold her hand, or ever kiss her, yet loving her helped me to leave.
Who is your favorite Catholic?
Pope John XXIII, the one who called the second Vatican Council. He wanted to throw open the windows in the church and let in some fresh air. Popes since him have been trying to shut the windows. All my life I’ve been opening windows in my mind. It’s a wonderful way to live.
What advice would Martin Luther King have for our era?
Discrimination and racism come in many forms, against Indo-Canadians, against gay people and against people in prison.
You mention being a refuge from Reagan’s America. Any future plans on fleeing Harper’s Canada?
Ronald Reagan tried to tear down the America my wife and I had worked for. He favored the rich and built up the military. We came to a Canada in 1988 that seemed to stand for peace and for caring for the poor. Canada was respected in the world. Now Stephen Harper builds new prisons, refuses to sign the Kyoto accord, hurts Canada’s image in the world, and helps the rich while he screws the poor.
My life is here in Canada now. I can’t leave. I’m embarrassed by Harper.
You’ve been teaching creative writing to convicts for more than 20 years. Aren’t there other Canadians more worthy of your talents?
I also teach creative writing to adults in Surrey. But the arts are sadly missing from our prisons. No music, no painting, no theatre and in many prisons, no writing. The prison system believes in programs, Anger Management, Substance Abuse etc.
The arts come to a person and say, “You’re talented and we’re going to help you develop that talent.” Programs approach an inmate and say, “You’re sick and we’re going to cure you.”
Both approaches have benefits, but right now the score is Programs – 99.9 %, the Arts .01%
In your memoir, you talk about you two decade battle with cancer. What’s your favourite thing about cancer?
I think my favourite thing about cancer is that I’m no longer afraid. In 1996, my urologist operated and took out my prostate. I was weak after the operation, but I was happy. He had cut out the diseased part of me and thrown it away. Amen, brothers. Cancer was gone.
Ten days later my doctor came to me and said, “Ed, I’m sorry. We didn’t get it all. It’s spread beyond the prostate.”
After I absorbed that message, I don’t think anything else can scare me.
And I appreciate medical science. It’s doing great things. My doctor always has another pill or another treatment in the background in case the one I’m on fails.
Cancer has brought Kathy and me closer together.
If you knew you had 50 years of healthy life starting today, what would you do with it?
Become a famous reformer and change the prison system. They’re just warehouses now and they’re costing the public billions. I won’t put inmates in cages, but I’ll insist that they change, which is far, far harder than ‘sitting in a cage and doing your time.’
Grow tulips for a living
Become a criminal lawyer and help some inmates I’ve met who’ve been screwed by the system
Become a family doctor. I watch my family doctor and I like what I see. I could do that.
Become one of the first colonists on Mars. Carl Sagan said we should not be a one-planet species.
Start my own church. The “not sure about anything, but always asking questions and seeking the transcendent” church.
Marry my wife again and get another 42 years. Have the same two kids again, but adopt a whole mess of kids that nobody else wants.
Every morning for those 50 years, I will write for an hour.