of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
Light behind the Walls
Issue on Prisons
This issue invites you to worship, laugh, and cry with those behind the walls of penitentiaries. Prison ministry is demanding, rewarding, frustrating, and far reaching. We hear the voices of those confined to prison. We see deep into their worship lives. Their stories of strength and spiritual survival under the most difficult circumstances can inspire us all. We hear their thoughts on prison worship groups and find out that the joys and challenges of prison worship reflect the joys and challenges of all our Quaker meetings for worship.
Is Prison Ministry for You?
Many Friends who are involved with prison ministry are asked, “Why prison ministry?” In fact, our own involvement began when we asked this question of others!
To start with, Quaker prison ministry is a tradition as old as our peace testimony and has been around just about as long as there have been Quakers. Perhaps this tradition began and continues because of our strong conviction that there is that of the Divine in each of us. Perhaps, too, because Friends recognize that while many people in prison can be characterized as truly “bad,” there are actually many truly good people in prisons.
How can this be true? Through our outreach and ministry we have been privileged to see many exceptional incarcerated persons who have used their time in prison to transform themselves from “bad” people into truly good people through education, through spiritual development, and through their good works to benefit the younger, less experienced people in prison. They have overcome their continual anger and antisocial behavior and metamorphasized into amazingly productive and helpful and spiritual individuals, continually amazing and inspiring Friends who meet and worship with them.
By and large, the people who populate our Quaker prison worship groups fall into this latter group, although they are also mentoring some of the younger people. We tend to see the “cream of the crop,” including many who have earned college and even master's degrees while in prison. Almost all of our attendees have sought out a variety of prison religious experiences in their attempts to grow spiritually, and also almost all of them have taken on leadership positions in the prison “insider” programs and activities. We are very moved by these people and feel they are worthy of our care and concern.
So, you may ask, even with the best of intentions, how can our presence with them for a few hours a week make much of a difference in their lives? First, try to imagine the prison environment: Any sign of weakness or vulnerability on the part of an imprisoned person invites aggression, bullying, or worse (sometimes much worse) from those truly bad people I mentioned earlier. Most people in prison have to maintain a closed “tough guy” persona to survive, trusting no one and asking no one for help. And, to make their lives even more degrading, they get very little respect from the staff or the system.
Those Friends who come into the prisons strive to offer an emotionally safe place (an actual place, as well as psychological environment) for incarcerated people to meet for a few hours a week. Here they begin to lower their guard; here they learn to become less angry and frustrated, they begin to trust us—and then, in turn, they begin to trust other inside members of the group. The friendships that develop in these worship groups carry over into their daily lives and make life a little easier for them all week long.
And, being Quakers, we naturally treat them with love and respect, which goes a long way toward making them feel once again to be worthy of respect. While few of our inside attenders will become (or remain) Quakers once they are released, most are interested in our history. Of greatest interest is the prison experiences of early Friends which included running afoul of authorities and ministering to all in prisons; also Quaker participation in the Underground Railroad and our work in the abolition and human-rights movements.
Most important, these people truly take to our practice of silent worship. What strikes many first-time outsiders to prison Quaker worship is that many insiders are AVP facilitators and share our belief in nonviolence and the divine nature of all human beings.
Now the question again, “Why prison ministry?” Why do we do it? Is it a sacrifice to spend hours of our precious weekend time with people in prison? Is it a sense of obligation? What do we get out of it? Ask any one of us what we get out of this experience and you’ll probably be surprised by the answers.
Most of us will probably tell you that we feel truly privileged and inspired to be able to meet and get to know the exceptional people who populate our worship groups. These are people who grew up in the worst circumstances you can imagine—poor neighborhoods, terrible schools, parents missing or working all the time, exposed to crack cocaine and other drugs from grade school on, dodging bullets from competing street gangs, tempted by the promise of big money peddling drugs. These are people who made mistakes earlier in their lives but who have overcome that background and those mistakes and, while in prison, have transformed themselves into the motivated, caring human beings we are privileged to know!
And then there is the spiritual lift that comes with getting to know and be known by the “others” in our society—from knowing we are following Jesus’ teachings regarding our treatment of the poor and the outcasts, including his injunction to visit those in prison.
Surprisingly, many of us will also mention the quality of the silent worship in our prison worship groups. Compared to our monthly meetings, the silence in these smaller meetings often seems even more intimate and more intense.
So, while Friends have a long tradition of prison ministry, those of us who carry on this tradition today have the satisfaction of knowing that we are helping to build loving and caring communities within our prisons. Because we go cheerfully throughout the world spreading the message of Friends, here we are also bringing some small measure of comfort and peace and friendship to some very exceptional and deserving individuals.
At the same time, we’re experiencing renewed spiritual growth of our own and the strong bonds of fellowship that come from working together in a cause that has value to all of us.
So, Friends, what are you waiting for? Come and join us!
If you are interested please contact the Yearly Meeting office, 15 Rutherford Pl., New York NY 10003; office [at] nyym [dot] org.
Greeting Card Ministry
Friends in Alfred have developed a unique way to connect with Friends “on the inside”; we send cards. Alfred Monthly Meeting sends greeting cards to men in the Attica Prison Worship Group four or five times each year. Children in First Day school make the cards, which include a message, prayer, or even song lyrics. We have used a variety of art media over the years in addition to the usual crayons and markers—collage, rubber and sponge stamps, paint, water colors, photographs, and various cut shapes among them. Friends of all ages sign the cards using first names only. We may occasionally include a slip of paper with some regional or monthly meeting news, but we do not include any personal correspondence. The text in the card is usually printed by computer and always includes Alfred Meeting’s address. Cards are sent directly to individual members of the worship group, usually about a dozen individuals. We also send a card to the lead volunteer on the outside to show our support for her work.
The men inside love receiving the cards. Many of them do not receive mail other than that related to legal work. Receiving a colorful hand-made card, signed by a dozen Friends (including the squiggles of toddlers) is truly a joy. Many men have written back to the meeting over the years, letting us know the news of their lives. Many men express that we are like family (which is not a cliché when you have been incarcerated so long that most of your family has died or no longer communicates with you).
The ministry has also been a joy to our meeting. We have been using the AVP road map with Quaker basics as themes for First Day school in recent months and the project fits with any theme: affirmation, answering that of God in each person, simplicity, love, forgiveness, faithfulness, cooperation and community, communication, letting your light shine, and transforming power among them. The greeting-card project is in its seventh year now, and some children have literally been involved in prison ministry since they were born!
Friends are invited and encouraged to replicate this project in their meetings. All you need to get started is the mailing address of a correctional facility and the names and identification numbers of the men in the Quaker worship group. These can be obtained from the NYYM Prisons Committee. Contact Suzanne Blackburn if you have other questions or comments at odonata [at] hughes [dot] net or 585-468-5274.
Sing Sing Quaker Meeting
As with any prison meeting, the attendance and membership at Sing Sing fluctuates with continual transfers, conflicting schedules, and some releases. Despite these inherent problems, meeting for worship remains fairly constant, with between 15 and 20 in attendance. There are usually some who are new to the meeting who have either spoken to a regular member and decided to see for themselves what the meeting was about or who come as a result of having attended a Quaker AVP or other program.
With the current state of the world and the political climate in the United States, it is often hard for the meeting to remain centered and focus on the spirituality of the meeting rather than politics and other matters. It is easy to forget in such a setting that this is a religious gathering and has a greater purpose than government, politics, and social policy, although these things are very important to Quakers and a part of their everyday life and meetings. On occasion, here, as probably happens with outside meetings, things can get stuck on these issues and it can be difficult to bring the meeting back to a spiritual focus.
With such a number of young people coming into the prison system, many having no guidance or “safe” place to go for community and worship, our meeting offers a safe haven and an oasis within the loud, chaotic environment of the prison. During our silence, this is probably the only place in the prison that one can literally hear a pin drop.
Other older members come in after experiencing something missing from the religions they have grown up with and sometimes still attend their own services as well as Quaker services to make up that void. All are welcome at our meeting, and most return.
Environment and earthcare have been primary concerns my entire life, so they always have a part in whatever I do. It would seem that the members of this meeting also have concerns for the environment, global warming, and other earthcare matters.
As for racism, we have a minority majority in the Sing Sing Meeting, and racism is nonexistent. We have had discussions on encouraging minority participation in outside meetings.
Of late, on occasion, the sense of the meeting has come through, and this is a very welcome sight for me, as I have been attending meetings since 1990. It is difficult at best to “guide” an unprogrammed meeting through the trials and tribulations that come up during the meeting. It needs to be remembered that this is a meeting for worship and as such is to be held in expectant waiting for divine guidance.
The meeting is gradually becoming aware that there is a living silence that draws us together by the power of God in our midst. The meeting is in the spirit that Friends come together with their hearts and minds prepared for worship. It is a source of strength and guidance for daily Christian living. As our meetings proceed, we become conscious that they are held in the spirit of love, truth, understanding, and forbearance for one another in seeking the Light and experience the presence of God around us.
We have all come to the Friends as “seekers” and as such have many different spiritual needs that must be satisfied before we can experience the inner peace we all desire in life. Inner peace is the ultimate goal in our spiritual lives, and therefore we must work to raise to this level of spirituality. Most of us are restless inwardly, and when we feel the presence of God, and experience the Inner Light, this is the tranquil feeling we experience as inner peace. We need to focus on obtaining that inner peace.
As seekers we should also focus on learning the true meaning of brotherly love, caring for each other, and showing compassion. There is such a misconception of what helping one another really means. In the prison setting, helping someone or showing kindness is taken as a sign of weakness. Spiritual experience teaches that helping one another can give one a sense of spiritual strength and inner peace that can only be described as overwhelming. When one is raised to this level of spirituality, it instills the feeling of having accomplished something very worthwhile. We are all in the learning process of our spiritual lives. What better way is there to learn than to help someone in need?
It seems so simple to say: Help one another and show brotherly love toward one another. This is the basic foundation of the Society of Friends. To put this Quaker concept into practice is truly a daily challenge in patience, self-discipline, and compassion. These things, which raise our spirituality to a higher level, do not come easy. It takes dedication and awareness that we truly want to see changes in our lives.
When we are in silence at our meetings, we are seeking the True Light and the presence of God all around us. What better objective could we have this year than to be able to obtain a new outlook on life, and what better goal can there be than to show brotherly love for one another? God is present all around us and as we wait in silence to see the Light, we can all pray that God will help us be a better person and show love for one another.
The Friends who come in from outside, giving up their valuable time on Sundays and holidays, away from their own friends and families, are greatly appreciated and a very welcome addition to our meetings. They are a source of centering for our meetings as well as a connection to what is going on outside these dismal walls. Their dedication, caring, and brotherly love comes forth at every meeting, and our gratitude for their presence can never be expressed enough.
Guidance and Support
The Prisons Committee of Nine Partners Quarter, whose members come from Bulls Head-Oswego, Clintondale, New Paltz, and Poughkeepsie, meets about every three months at one or another of the meetinghouses. We oversee the worship groups at Eastern and Green Haven Correctional Facilities. One or more of the committee members attends the worship meetings in each facility, as often as they can, to participate in worship, advise on Quaker practices, and support the groups. We try to provide guidance and support for individual people in prison as well.
We try to make sure that Quakers in our two facilities get the recognition, as a religious group, that has been given to Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Native Americans, and Jews. Some chaplains and staff advisers are consistently helpful; others have trouble understanding Quakers. Although only a small number of the people in these prisons hope to be affiliated with the Society of Friends, we notice their deep spiritual dedication. We hope that educational programs about Quakerism can be established and maintained in the two facilities, without overstepping the regulations against proselytizing.
In our committee meetings, we share information about individuals we have come to know, some of whom have been released. Some of us correspond with present and former incarcerated persons. The committee is concerned to nurture and advance prison ministry throughout the quarter and to keep contact with other concerned Friends in the Yearly Meeting. Often there are problems of getting gate clearance for Friends wanting to visit a prison worship group, and we try to help resolve these problems.
Lately we have become especially concerned about two matters to which the new state administration is also sympathetic: the reinstatement of education programs within the facilities, and the reintegration of imprisoned people into society. Friends can be a big help to people when they are released, if they are willing to take time for them.
Meeting a Friend at the Front Gate
Syracuse Meeting, Auburn Preparative Meeting
At about 6:30 a.m. on March 8, 2007, my alarm goes off. I looked at it like it was Christmas, energy rushing, eyes open as far as they could be, and without another second going by I jumped out of bed. Unlike most days, when looking at the alarm would give me the dreariest feeling, I knew something was much different. I knew I was going to see a friend in a different environment than I have ever seen him before. No, it would not be on the moon, but pretty close, if you were to ask him. It would be the front gates of Auburn prison. Bobby Lewis is a Quaker, a legal aide, and a person very much involved in many parts of the prison, making it a bearable place to live for the population, and so was a popular and respected person in there. I met Bobby a few years ago going to AVP and Quaker meeting. Bobby is a guy that really makes you question why there are prisons. He is a teddy bear and as respectful as anyone could be.
It took me about an hour and a half to get to Auburn that day—the snow was much worse than normal. I swore I was going to miss Bobby. I was praying no, no, I want to see this moment. Finally, after a hard drive I parked quick, jumped out of my car, and ran into the front gate to see if I had missed him. It was wonderful; I could not believe it, just then I saw Bobby walking across the front gate to freedom! It was the most amazing feeling. I truly was blessed to be able to hold that moment with him.
Carolyn, also with Auburn Prison, got there right as I did, and we could not be happier. As we waited for his family to arrive we stood in the cold looking with him for the first time after 27 years in prison at the cars drive by. You would have thought we were looking at a wedding or birth of a child, but no, it was just a few cars driving by. For Bobby it was the first cars he had seen through a free man’s eyes in 27 years. It was wonderful. He was smiling as the snow dropped on his green jacket and new crisp blue jeans. After a while his family came, and it was another blessed moment, as he gave a hug to his sister and aunt, and after a little talking and a few pictures they all got in the car together to start their new life. It was a true blessing.
Today Bobby is in Binghamton, N.Y., getting everything in his life sorted out. I am very excited for the soon-to-be moment when Bobby comes up to Syracuse Quaker Meeting to speak. So please watch out for that announcement and please join us for that special day.
A few moments ago I received the most wonderful news: I am to be paroled! As many of you know, this has been a long-time struggle for me, and thanks to the efforts of many, it has finally come to pass. Yet as wonderful as this may seem to me, what really has me thinking is the power of prayer.
When I entered the room where the Parole Board was meeting I was very nervous and for some reason all the things I intended to say were lost to me. Then it occurred to me, that at that very moment many of you were probably praying for me and holding me in the Light. Suddenly I was filled with this sense of joy that came bubbling out in a torrent and washed over that room like a flood. Needless to say that by the time I left the room, everyone was smiling and laughing. Now I don’t know if this changed the outcome, but what I can say is that I think I made them feel confident that if they released me it was the right thing. Such is the power of positive prayer that it can reach across space and time to lend strength where it is failing. Courage where darkness looms and joy where two or three are gathered in His name. Glory hallelujah! I have seen this Truth!
Now many may think that I must be extremely happy, and I am. Well, I am getting there. But all I can feel right now is a bit of sadness that I have to leave behind those I have come to love. And although I will be with them for a while yet, it is a strange thing to feel at this moment. I have spent 30 years behind these walls and most of them in darkness. But having come to see the Light and trust in it, I have to wonder: Will I ever find a sacred space like the one Friends have created here? One in which trust flows like a river and love more freely? I have written to you that I live amongst miracles and on this day of my greatest joy I miss it already.
There are probably many things I could add, but I just wanted to share with you this wonderful news. After all, it is part of the fruit of your prayers conceived in love that has brought it about. I leave you instead with two thoughts. First my heartfelt thanks for believing in me and being with me on the day of my hearing. And secondly, I would like to share something that came out of the silence last Friday.
The road to wholeness begins with being grateful. Gratefulness humbles the spirit and allows the way into the heart to open. Only then can you see the wonderfulness that lies at the core of all human beings. Gratefulness breeds humbleness which in turn, leads to beauty and eventually to Truth.
Gratefulness makes forgiveness all the more possible. For petty ideas can find no perches from which to cling unto our souls nor darkness into our spirits. And once bathed in the waters of forgiveness, this cleansing leads to the centered order of one’s Divine Nature. Restoring the balance.
Don’t really understand it all myself but I thought I should share it nonetheless because it came from within the worship. Once again, thank you for lending me your strength and keeping me always in your prayers.
Welcome, Green Haven Friends!
At its November 2006 Executive Committee session the Nine Partners Quarterly Meeting approved the request of the Green Haven Prison Worship Group to become a prison preparative meeting, under the care of the quarterly meeting Prisons Committee. This completed a process of over a year of consideration. The Green Haven Worship Group, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, has become
the third prison preparative meeting, joining the two at Eastern and Auburn Correctional Facilities.
Prison ministry is a longtime concern of the Religious Society of Friends. We welcome all who would like to explore whether they are led to this work, or simply wish to visit. Please contact the Yearly Meeting office, 15 Rutherford Pl., NY NY 10003; office [at] nyym [dot] org if you are interested in worshipping at Green Haven (southwest Dutchess County) or any other correctional facility.
New Worship Group at Five Points!
Wonderful news—we now have a new worship group at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, N.Y.!
The first meeting for worship is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on June 19, 2007, and meetings will be held on the third Tuesday of each month thereafter.
Volunteers are needed to worship on the inside with this new group. If you can nurture this worship, please contact the Yearly Meeting office.
Keeping the Heart Soft in Prison
Members of the Otisville Worship Group write how they keep their hearts soft in the prison environment.
The way in which I allow God’s love to penetrate my heart, particularly the innermost part, my soul, so that it doesn’t become infected and hardened, is by replacing hatred with love, injury with forgiveness, doubt with faith, depression with hope, and despair and darkness by reaching for the light within. The past 25 years have been a struggle and faith journey. But thanks to God’s grace and mercy, I still have a soft heart filled with love for others.
John “Mojo” Flynn:
Today, appreciation and gratitude are the central ideals and feelings that I have embraced in my journey. It is my need and desire to keep a soft and compassionate heart and an understanding presence of mind. Such precious values are my soul’s compass, leading me, shaping me, keeping the eternal light shining bright and providing me with a reassured understanding of life. This understanding continues to speak to me through 25 years of imprisonment, revealing that I have much to be appreciative of, to give thanks for.
With profound gratitude I give thanks to my parents and all those who helped shape the person I am today. Without their love I would not have been born into this amazing world, and would not appreciate life the way I have learned to do. I would not have been able to experience fully this awesome and beautiful gift of existence; to see the sunshine and hear the birds sing, to see the sun set and the stars twinkle in the night, but most importantly, to love and be loved in return.
Andre “Imani” Ward:
Growing Spiritually: Attica Worship Group
We of the Attica Meeting send our warm greetings, positive energy, and blessings, with a deep hope to all to continue to maintain the flame of the Light Within.
Our Meeting has been withstanding the onslaught of our integrity and humanity. We have been grappling with many concerns: personal introspection, local, national, and international events, our government’s foreign policy, troops in combat, infringement of civil liberties, and violence in our communities. These have brought about anger, anxiety, frustration, and pain.
We have been blessed with six newcomers. One came on the night of the Dances of Universal Peace and found it to be very tranquil. Others came from Quaker meetings at other facilities and through their interactions with members of our own meeting. Two came on the night of the Forgiveness Workshop. They have added a new dimension to our worship group, bringing new experiences, fresh insight, and interesting conversation. We have welcomed them with our sharing, closeness, openness, and trust, hoping that they have felt this and have seen that we are well-intentioned and very serious about our commitment to our meeting.
We have lost one member of our meeting to parole, a second, unfortunately, to violence, and most recently, a third through a transfer to another facility—but yet we persevere. We are continuously growing spiritually, having more centered meetings as we grow. The Light has been rekindled by hope of a new beginning, and fed by memorable discussions on learning styles, life situations, perceptions, Bible readings, Quaker history, Dances of Universal Peace, and sharing in the cultural experiences from a trip to Botswana, Africa, by one member, who also led a moving discussion on grief. We read the play JB, which was most enjoyable and fun. We fed our playful nature with the making of origami; that proved quite interesting and allowed us to give expression to our creative sides.
We continue to build our sense of community by spending more time together sharing each other’s experiences, presence, and conversations. One new member has stated that he has experienced in our Quaker meeting a sense of community similar to the men’s group he attends on the outside. The Catholic Christmas event on December 16, 2006, allowed us all to continue to share in each other’s presence and increase our sense of community. We sang songs and shared a meal together, which was greatly appreciated. A good time was had by all. Adding to our continued sense of community is the visiting program in which Friends from the Rochester Meeting visit individual members of our meeting, making a big difference in our lives and making us feel loved and appreciated. It is heartwarming to know that someone cares, and the visits help alleviate our loneliness. Many also feel that our meeting is a vehicle for healing, and by sharing we let out the things that are often bottled up, bringing about transition, transformation, and a chance to “get off this planet” for a brief while. And to hear the caring, soothing voice of a female when we dance, sing, or otherwise engage in our usual activities keeps us connected to our humanity and in touch with our more gentle side.
We have been stuck on an idea for a fundraiser; however, we did donate funds to charities closer to home (AVP and Cephas).
We continue to strive to see that of God in everyone. We do not have an issue of racism in our meeting. We are a racially and ethnically diverse group that treats each other with the utmost respect and dignity. We feel that the diversity adds immeasurably to our group and allows us to explore issues through the lens of different cultural perspectives. One of our beloved Friends recently spoke of how she came to our meeting from the Rochester Meeting. She heard a poem read that was written by one of our Meeting members entitled “No Political Solutions.” She found the poem so compelling that she felt a calling to “stop waiting to live and live now.” She and others have found that our meeting is particularly special because it offers a greater sense of intimacy and closeness that sometimes seems absent at meetings in the community. Perhaps this is due to our relatively small size. We take special care of our meeting, and, despite the fact that we find ourselves in prison, we do our best to truly live the Peace Testimony through our ways and actions.
Building a Library behind Bars
Advancement Committee members of Butternuts Monthly Meeting are combing appropriate catalogs, choosing books to add to the library at the Otsego County Detention Center. A grant of $200 from New York Yearly Meeting’s Prisons Committee is supporting their work.
“The Detention Center library can really use some help,” said one committee member.
Nothing in the library presently reflects local Friends’ strong presence in the jail ministry of Otsego County, an ecumenical group of clergy and laity drawn from every major denomination as well as from stand-alone evangelical churches. The ministry supplies weekly worship services at the jail, plus a 12-step program, life-skills training, and one-on-one counseling for any resident requesting it.
Butternuts Monthly Meeting shares in the staffing of these services, and during August provides three worship meetings each Sunday as well as all the individual counseling.
“Building up the library with some Friends’ books will definitely enrich our ministry in the jail,” said the Advancement spokesperson. “Our great concern is to turn up texts that have substance but are simple enough in vocabulary and syntax to be read by the inmates, many of whom have serious reading and attention problems. Recommendations from other meetings doing such work would be very welcome!”
The detention center typically houses 60 to 70 men and women either serving terms there or awaiting sentencing and transfer to state prisons. Sadly, most of them are only 18 to 25 years old.
The Prisons Committee Wants You
The Prisons Committee is involved with the witness of Friends concerning criminal justice. The committee welcomes all Friends to join us in our work. If you are interested please contact Helen Garay Toppins, assistant clerk of the committee, at office [at] nyym [dot] org or write NYYM, 15 Rutherford Place, New York NY 10003.
The objectives of the committee are:
1. to provide spiritual development and Quaker studies for Quaker prison meetings, and isolated prisoners, through Friends providing prison ministry
2. to provide support and a focus for the activities of monthly meetings, Quaker prison meetings, isolated prisoners, and individual Friends in the field of criminal justice including legislation
3. to provide outreach and liaison with others in the Yearly Meeting area who are working for the improvement and humanization of the criminal justice system, and with the authorities responsible for administering the system
4. to educate Friends, the general public, and our public officials on criminal-justice issues
Functions & Activities
1. assist the Quarterly/Regional or Monthly Meetings who oversee prison worship groups
2. develop guidelines for spiritual advisors and ongoing training for volunteers in prison worship groups
3. provide financial support for educational and spiritual materials for prison worship groups and contributions and liaisons to organizations working in the criminal justice field
4. assist in the establishment of college-level programs in prisons
5. study selected criminal justice issues and legislation pertaining to criminal justice and alert Friends of appropriate action
Expanding the Silence: Auburn Quaker Meeting
Regarding the state of our Quaker Meeting, our members felt they enjoy coming, they enjoy the silence and try to be as one in the circle. We appreciate visitors from other meetings and the Prisons Committee; we enjoy our annual event and the associated guests. We are pleased with the quality of our discussions, the discussion materials the new clerk provided, and we find the films chosen have provided some healthy discussions. Overall we find we are moving into the Light as our consensus process improves.
We found the need to expand our silence to 30 minutes or more from 20 minutes. We would like to see more intellectual stimulation as well as more people taking responsibility for leading discussions. We also would like to see more participation and better attendance. Members have requested to spend time on updates of our individual spiritual and mental states.
When it comes to the subject of attracting new members, we believe word of mouth and the example of our members’ behavior are the best methods. It was also expressed that some do not want our group to expand too much because it is most effective when not overcrowded. AVP was credited with attracting members, and we feel it is better to integrate newcomers slowly rather than trying to explain everything at once.
Our group was very moved by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the fiction film Crash, which led to deep discussions on global warming and racism. We are concerned with meeting the minimum needs for all, and we sent money to Doctors without Borders and Baden Street Settlement, as well as donating annually to adopt a family at Christmas time along with Poplar Ridge Meeting. Concerns about homophobia have been raised. This is very common in prison, and even speaking about it requires courage. There were differing opinions about Bible passages regarding homosexuality. A Friends Journal article on feminism written by Judith Fetterley led to vigorous debate over several meetings. Lastly we rejoice in the freedom of our brother Bobby Lewis after serving a long sentence.
Invitation to AVP
Test your conflict I.Q.
Do you find it difficult to say “no”?
Most people find it difficult to deal with conflict. If you answered “yes” to two or more questions above, perhaps an AVP workshop may be helpful to you.
Making Friends with Conflict
The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops help people learn to turn their conflicts into opportunities for personal growth. Conflict does not need to turn into violence but can be used as a tool for personal and social change. These were the methods used by Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jesus of Nazareth.
Each workshop is a three-day experience that helps people to improve self-esteem, manage anger, strengthen communication skills, let go of grudges, build cooperative relationships, transform conflict, learn assertiveness, and clarify values, among other things. This program is an opportunity to learn new skills, deepen personal relationships, and make a difference in your community.
What Is AVP?
AVP is a worldwide program that started with one workshop for men at Green Haven Prison in New York State in 1975. The program has proven so effective that AVP workshops are now being conducted to heal conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Burundi. AVP workshops are even part of the training for judges in the Truth Commission in Rwanda.
AVP is a grassroots, volunteer program dedicated to reducing violence in our society. The program has spread by word of mouth so that it operates in more than 40 countries including Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, the Congo, South Africa, India, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the United States, AVP provides programs for people in prison, school children, churches, and community groups in 30 states.
AVP offers three workshops: the basic workshop, the advanced workshop, and the training for facilitators workshop. Each workshop is led by a team of skilled and experienced facilitators using group-process methods. They create a safe environment where participants can share personal feelings and thoughts. Experiential exercises in small groups build a sense of community and trust, and roleplays of conflict situations build skills. Workshops usually begin on Friday evening and run from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Saturday and from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m. on Sunday. Workshops are usually limited to 20 participants.
AVP Landing Strip
Note: Landing Strip is a program for people who participated in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops in prison (including facilitators from outside) and to formerly incarcerated people who wish to take AVP.
My name is Johnny Yuen. I just came aboard AVP Landing Strip recently and found it to be very helpful, especially after doing over two decades of prison time. For instance, I had an easier time navigating through the craziness of prison than the reality of free society. Something as easy as getting an ID card took me over a year. But that was nothing compared to having money and not being able to put it in the bank. Needless to say, it took me a while to get a bank account; however, happily, I have a bank account now and Capital One, et al., are knocking on my door to get their credit cards.
Statistics say that eight out of ten incarcerated people who are released will return to prison within five years of their release. I do not want to be another statistic. This is why Landing Strip and AVP is such a great family to be in. We have fun and we lift one another up. If it were any less, I wouldn’t even bother to show up. Because I showed up, the guys let me know what the deal is. They even told me that I wasn’t alone with my problems. We all had problems with IDs, getting jobs, finding housing, dealing with irrational people, and the list goes on. So I was not alone. They have gotten beyond the small problems that compound into larger problems that lead to recidivism.
By being there, they offer hope of a better tomorrow, and that was all that I needed. I, in my individual pain, could only see the obstacle which was in front of me. But with the group of sympathetic ears all around me, I saw the bigger picture. By talking about my problems with the group, I saw that if I don’t want to be a statistic, I will have to be patient and deal with the irrationality of the free world day by day. Some of the people in the group have been out for over a decade. Some of the people in the group have never been incarcerated. But to a person who is drowning, it doesn’t matter who throws out the life preserver. You just grab it, hang on to it, and let the people pull you into safety. One day, I’ll throw out a life preserver to someone who needs it too.
Keep the Runway Lights Shining
Twice a month in a room lovingly lent to us by AFSC at the 15th Street meetinghouse, a group of ex-offenders has met almost religiously for over the past decade keeping the AVP experience alive.
I first heard the idea of Landing Strip during an AVP workshop in the early 90s while incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Ideas became words, words became action, and Landing Strip became a reality. Many volunteers have kept the lights of the Landing Strip burning over the years, and still it remains lit for both men and women coming home from prison. Today I’m proud to say I help keep the runway lights working.
For the past seven years, Landing Strip has been a very important part of my community-reintegration process. In AVP we form an intentional community based on the principles of nonviolent conflict resolution. When coming home from a 10-year period of incarceration, I needed the familiar, and AVP Landing Strip was a place I could come and enjoy the positive fellowship of other ex-prisoners. They reaffirmed me, letting me know that no matter what I’ve done in my past, I was a person of value and a welcome member of the community. Many others not in the AVP circle were not as like-minded or kind.
Our mission at Landing Strip is simple:
Landing Strip serves those interested in finding a safe place where the challenges of transition can be shared openly and most importantly, understood by those who have already “been there” and face the same challenges.
We are a group of men and women who meet to offer a welcoming hand to those with some AVP experience, who are going through the transition back to society. We have learned that often the most difficult “bid” begins upon release from prison. Meetings are at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday and third Wednesday of every month.
Refreshments as well as transportation are provided at the meetings.
At this time we do not have services such as housing, job references, food, or clothing. What we do have is continuing “a community based on honesty, respect, and caring.” And our members try to give out information helpful to transition.
Landing Strip allowed me time to heal old emotional wounds, to meet wonderful, supportive friends, and to be open to all the positive gifts that freedom has to offer. For me this gift has been priceless.
Today I stay involved in the community on many fronts such as AVP, AFSC, and the Church of Gethsemane, as a husband, as a father, as a homeowner, and as a voter. In the past I had many fears of returning to the “outside” community from prison. Landing Strip was one of my first steps in understanding that if you put out love and caring into the world, that gift is returned tenfold.
If anyone wants to help keep those runway lights shining for those coming home from prison trying to make safe landings, we welcome you into our community . . . Friend.
For more information about Landing Strip or AVP please call 800-909-8920, write the NY State AVP office at: AVP, 60 Leber Rd., Blauvelt NY 10913, or e-mail avpnyso [at] aol [dot] com.
A Brief History of AVP
The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) began in 1975. A group of incarcerated people (called the Think Tank) at Green Haven Correctional Facility, in New York State, were looking at issues involving youth. Young people were coming to prison at a much younger age. The Think Tank people started to develop a program for youth and asked a group of Quakers from the Quaker Project on Community Conflict to help them develop a program.
Quakers were able to draw on their long experience of nonviolent conflict resolution.
The Think Tank, in developing the program, began to see in themselves and their communities this need to curtail the violence. The Attica rebellion and this development group planted the seed, after which some of the Quakers got together in Larry Aspey’s living room and conducted the first AVP workshop.
It is from these roots that AVP has flourished into a worldwide nonprofit organization in over 30 countries.
Garry R. writes . . . “As a former prisoner, I think it important to give much credit to that group of inmates who in trying to better the lives of others, has bettered the lives of thousands for 32 years and [in] many different places in the world.”
Fostering Spiritual Growth: Eastern Quaker Meeting
This past year has been full of challenges for Eastern Prison Preparative Meeting. Since many of these are unique to a prison meeting, we will share them with you.
Our Faith and Practice reminds us that “We know that God shares the Truth in many ways. If we bring open hearts and minds, we find the Holy Spirit in unexpected places and in the contributions of men and women of all ages and all religions, sometimes in many forms that give insight into humanity’s highest values.” As this paragraph suggests, we have recognized the Holy Spirit working into and through the hearts and souls of our members during meeting for worship and other times together.
Silent worship is the core of this meeting, but at times it seems a struggle to center down and worship. Some of the biggest challenges for us as a prison meeting have been worshipping by the clock, and not always knowing where we will be located. Our worship service is from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. Saturday mornings in a room assigned to the Quaker group on South Hall Rec, which is used for all the smaller religious groups in the facility for services and special events.
The quality of worship and spiritual ministry in a corporate sense has been uneven this year. Rather than a clear perception of divine guidance for the community, our afterthoughts are sometimes social rather than spiritual. We as a group have spoken about these concerns, and while most Friends have said they feel safe in the spirit of the meeting, some are worried that the meeting is losing touch with our spiritual base.
Fostering spiritual growth has always been a priority of Eastern Prison Preparative Meeting, and we will continue to emphasize this. We have worked into our worship time a reading from the Bible, Faith and Practice, and other spiritual books before going into silence, and we have, when possible, lengthened silent worship. There is a constant flux of members due to transfers, which is a crucial aspect of our continual corporate spiritual search and growth. This year several members were transferred to other facilities. The meeting goes through its highs and lows but continues to be an oasis of spiritual support for all of us here (and a few who are no longer physically here). As of this writing, we have seven members, and six attenders.
We can also report that we now have implemented a Ministry and Counsel Committee and we hope to keep this vital committee in place for years to come. Other committees that keep us on our Quaker path are Nominating, Outreach, Hospitality, and Quaker Studies.
Relations with community and other groups were at a high point in this past year. In some small ways, we as a community were able to do a few things to help others and ourselves in the spirit of love. In the beginning of the year we made a connection for a few of our members with AVP here at the facility, and by the reading of this report there will be three new AVP facilitators who are Friends in Eastern Correctional Facility. Also, this year we were able once again to help the Tomorrow’s Children’s Fund with a donation that will go to the study for a cure for cancer in children. We also were able to assist in the tuition of a local student with ties to Eastern Prison Preparative Meeting.
At the closing of the year we raised funds to replace an old TV and to purchase a DVD player. Now we will be ready for when we resume our Quaker Studies class, and for events where a film is shown that we can share and talk about after.
The Friends at Eastern will have an all- day retreat in 2007 on July 7th from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. All are welcome; for more information contact New Paltz Friends Meeting.
Much should be said for the volunteers we have here at Eastern. The Friends who volunteer bring a spirit into the facility with them that is much needed, and for which we are very grateful, but we take this opportunity to ask for Quaker help in the form of a spiritual adviser or elders to worship with us and give us guidance.
NYYM Minute on Parole
On April 14, 2007, at Representative Meeting, NYYM approved the following minute on parole, which had previously been approved by Purchase Quarterly Meeting. Friends directed the clerk of the Yearly Meeting to forward this minute to the New York State Council of Churches and to ask the Council and its affiliates to consider how they might assist in revising the state’s parole policy and practice for violent offenders.
Many of the men and women in New York prisons who are faithful attenders of Quaker Worship Groups have used their years of incarceration to transform their lives. Some entered prison without high school diplomas and now have graduate degrees. Others have mastered the skills of a variety of vocational trades. Most have participated in programs such as nonviolent conflict resolution, anger management, responsible parenting, and substance abuse counseling. Having embraced the teachings of a faith community and the disciplines of a spiritual practice as a basis for living their lives, many now reach out in ministry to others, especially younger persons just entering the prison system.
Yet, even after all these efforts aimed at turning their lives around while serving out their sentences, the parole board, all too often, ignores the many accomplishments of those who are parole-eligible, and requires them to serve more time—typically in two-year increments—ostensibly because of the nature of the crime of which they were convicted. And the refusal of parole seems to have no limit—some have been refused parole half-a-dozen or more times before being released, and it’s possible that some never will be released. This despite the fact that the original parole eligibility date is based on an exhaustive presentencing report prepared for the court. It is a matter of faith among Friends (Quakers) that there is that of God in everyone. We know, experientially as a faith community, that it is possible for human beings to be transformed, by the power of Spirit at work in the world, and present in each of us, even in those of us who have broken the law, even in those of us who have taken the life of another. We ask, therefore, that, in addition to criminal history, parole release decisions give equal consideration to all of the factors involved. These factors include: Educational achievement; Employment skills; Disciplinary record; Program participation; Creation of a viable discharge plan; Parole eligibility.
Once people in prison are release-eligible and community-ready, they should have a parole hearing that takes into account the totality of their record of achievement and behavior. Being community-ready means a prisoner has accepted responsibility for crimes committed, understands the circumstances that led to criminal behavior, maintained satisfactory institutional conduct, and has created a comprehensive discharge plan that includes family ties, housing, and employment. Such a person should not be refused release on parole, beyond their court-imposed minimum sentence, solely because of the crime for which that sentence was served. All of the factors that led to the original sentence were considered by the sentencing judge. To revisit them in a parole decision hearing is to usurp the role of the court. Further, to allow the parole release decision to hinge on one immutable factor—the nature of the crime, which can never change—is to invite despair and hopelessness into what should be a correctional process that supports the possibility of transformation, and the making whole of what has been broken: lives, families, communities.
Young Quakes Conference!
The next Young Quakes Conference will be at Oakwood, October 5–8, 2007. Preliminary information is available on the Young Quakes section of the FGC Web site. Updates will be posted at www.nyym.org as more information becomes available.
NCC at Representative Meeting
I regret that illness kept me from seeing you at April Representative Meeting, but having read the minutes of the business sessions, I can tell you were gathered into the blessed community.
As you know the Nurture Coordinating Committee has under its care our representatives to Friends United Meeting (FUM). I encourage you to read the NYYM FUM representatives’ complete report of Christopher Sammond's travels to Kenya for the FUM board meeting in February. Wonderful, eventful, and, in some ways, painful work is being done in FUM—work that we as a Meeting need to consider faithfully. To that end, and with the approval of NYYM, Nurture Coordinating Committee is forming a task group to assist the Yearly Meeting in discerning our responses to queries our FUM representatives shall present to us. (These are appended to the representatives’ report on the NYYM Web site.)
In the next months, NCC will decide the best way to go forward with forming this task group and deciding how this work will be accomplished. But if you are interested, do feel free to contact me now.
Chatham-Summit Friends Launch Meetinghouse Renovation
A Groundbreaking? An Icebreaking? or Both?
Defying the slick aftermath of an ice-and-snow storm, Chatham-Summit Friends proceeded on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, March 18, 2007, with the long-planned groundbreaking to launch the first addition to their meetinghouse, including significant renovations, since its completion in 1970.
With about 70 members, attenders, and other well-wishers in attendance, including Mayor Kevin Tubbs of Chatham Township, Councilwoman Cory Fuller of Chatham Borough, and Sue Ketter of Fenton Construction (the project contractor), Friends symbolically tossed dirt and celebrated the process that has brought the project to this point.
The expansion and renovation will offer greater access for people with disabilities, provide more energy efficiency, and make the building more useful to the community.
The event began in the gathering room with a buffet breakfast prepared by Friends and the viewing of a wonderful DVD of the groundbreaking for the original construction of the meetinghouse, prepared by Chip Prestera from photographs of that event in 1969.
After a welcome by Brenda Liss, her comments on the foresight of those early members of our meeting and the current project’s importance for the future, and a report on the Building Fund Capital Campaign by Arlene Johnson, Friends bundled up and braved the bitter temperature outdoors for a ceremonial groundbreaking. They donned plastic hard hats and took shovels in hand to toss a little dirt (retrieved from under the snow for the occasion by several sturdy Friends) and share good wishes.
Friend Peter White joked, and it was much appreciated by all, that what we really had on our hands was an icebreaking rather than a groundbreaking! But this did not seem to freeze spirits in the slightest. Peter brought greetings and read a reminiscence of the first groundbreaking written by his parents, Bill and Lynn White, who were founding members of the meeting and who now live in western Pennsylvania. They recalled that 37 years ago, the day was sunny but windy (the same in 2007) and that “everyone came in their Sunday best” (definitely not the same in 2007!). Bill and Lynn also wrote: “These days, on the rare occasions when we do visit, we are still pleased by this wonderful group of friends/Friends. We know of no one who has ever regretted ‘setting sail’ on Southern Boulevard!” Their words seemed to form a bridge connecting us to those Quakers generations back whose vision and hard work have given us a precious legacy to preserve and, when we are called to do so, to build upon and improve.
The ceremony was followed by worship sharing in the meeting room, during which many remembered now-distant Friends and some who have passed away, and spoke of the important role the meeting and the meetinghouse have played in their lives.
The celebration focused us joyfully on the task ahead, with many memorable images, lots of laughter, and some tears. The physical act of digging and the moving worship service helped us to see clearly the central role that our meetinghouse plays in our spiritual community and to appreciate how our building project connects us to the work and vision of Friends who preceded us and contributes to our spiritual enrichment.
Farmington-Scipio Spring Gathering 2007
Carolyn Hilles has agreed to join us at the Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting’s Spring Gathering the weekend of June 8–10, 2007, at Long Point Camp on the west side of Seneca Lake.
Carolyn is a member of Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, Mass. She is the author of “Our Money & Our Lives,” a featured article that appeared in the July 2006 Friends Journal on Friends and Money.
Accompanying Carolyn will be Penny Yunuba, also a member of Beacon Hill Meeting. Together, Carolyn and Penny have conducted popular workshops on money at Pendle Hill and Friends General Conference.
In addition to providing an opportunity to meet and work with these Friends, Spring Gathering will include a range of workshops on a variety of subjects; activities for children, teens, and families; worship; singing; and plenty of time for eating and relaxing with Friends.
There will also be programs for teens and young adults.
Please plan to join us for what promises to be a stimulating, interesting, and spiritual exploration of Friends’ relationship with money. For registration information please contact Bronwyn Mohlke at bjm9 [at] cornell [dot] edu or 607-277-4183; Rini Clarkberg at mec30 [at] cornell [dot] edu or 607-277-9364; Ginny Gartlein at 607-272-3471; or Marilyn Ray at MLR17 [at] cornell [dot] edu or 607-539-7778.
Seeds Cracking Open: Friends Witness Work at Representative Meeting
Paul wrote to the Romans, “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law. . . . Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3:28–31) At Representative Meeting on April 13–15, the Yearly Meeting body heard the witness and call of many Friends upholding the law in faith. Friends shared concerns, visions and actions involving (1) preventing war against Iran; (2) reforming New York State’s parole determinations so that parole boards take into account a person’s record of achievement and behavior; (3) supporting Friends’ unwavering opposition to torture in any form; (4) ending the death penalty in New Jersey; and (5) conscientious objection to military taxation.
Friends spoke with somber recognition of the violence that is the instrument of domination in our nation and of the injury and pain to body and soul that this causes both to the oppressed and to us. Yet Friends also spoke with faith in the indomitable power of the Spirit and the Light to make a difference for the better. Friends embraced the call, in Walter Wink’s words, to the revolutionary message of “Jesus’ Third Way”: neither violence nor passivity, but active nonviolent resistance:
Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Doubleday, 1998), pages 100–101)
The Yearly Meeting body came to unity on five minutes that express and extend Friends’ long-standing witness for peaceful resolution of disputes, prison reform, and the sanctity of every person.
All of these minutes and summaries of Friends’ discussions and discernment are available on the New York Yearly Meeting Web site at http://www.nyym.org/pubs/0704min.shtml.
Paul instructed the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:6–9) At Representative Meeting, Friends brought seeds, and Friends watered them. Together, we wait in worship and act in faith that God’s infiniteness will make them grow.
Opportunity: Worship-Sharing Facilitators Needed for Silver Bay
Worship-sharing group leaders are needed during Yearly Meeting this summer. Worship-sharing groups will meet Monday through Friday, July 23–27, from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m.
Worship sharing provides an opportunity to worship together near the beginning of the day, setting the tone for other activities as the day unfolds. Sharing insights, experiences, and prayer together refreshes the spirit. Your contribution, opening participants to be a channel for the Holy Spirit, will be invaluable.
If you will lead a worship-sharing group, please reply as soon as possible to Joe Garren at joegarren [at] 2ndstreetcafe [dot] com or telephone 718-768-2969. We hope you will feel led to contribute to the Yearly Meeting in this way.
This column is prepared from information about membership received from the local meeting recorders.
Virginia Louise Blanford—Scarsdale