By George Owen
Prison ministry has been a regular part of Quaker practice from our beginnings in England in the 1660’s when religious persecution landed many Quakers in prison. Our Prison ministry seeks to provide an opportunity for prisoners to practice Quaker spirituality through gathering together in silence to listen to the movement of spirit. We welcome people wherever they are on their spiritual journeys. The depth of our worship depends on our investment in knowing each other as we are, and recognizing that that of God in each of us, the inner teacher, the divine presence in all creation.
While these teachings seem open-ended, non-judgmental and liberating, they are very difficult to embody. We struggle with them together with the inmates, but what keeps bubbling up out of our sharing in the silence is gratitude and love.
This pattern of Prison Ministries goes back years with other members of our meeting, many of whom are no longer with us. We only go once a month and have recently been allowed only 60 minutes, yet the impact of these visits, on them and on us, is often profound. We listen deeply to each other, something that’s extremely rare in their experience and humbling for us.
Currently the challenges of the corona virus pandemic have caused the prisons to be closed to any visitors. When I think about how much our pastoral visits have meant to the men, I feel their loss. Especially now with no visitors, only the virus. I miss my visits with Shane King and Duane Bull at Fox Lake Correctional Facility and I’m sure Glen Copper misses the men at Waupun as well. Ann Hippensteel and Don Pardee have joined us at times, enriching everyone’s experience and providing welcome company on the drive up and back.
From point of view of the Department of Corrections (DOC), we are a special class of visitors who they call pastoral visitors. They see us as having some kind of official status within our religious community such as pastors, priests, or lay ministers. From their perspective our job is to lead the men In the various practices of our respective religions. We are explicitly directed to discourage inmates from any kind of leadership role. Similarly pastoral visitors are prohibited from fraternizing with the men in any way, including correspondence. Living within the rules and bureaucracy of the DOC requires its own special discipline of compromise, following “house rules” even as we disagree with them.
Because pastoral visitors are not allowed to correspond with inmates in facilities where they are providing pastoral visiting, the Prison Ministries Committee has members that we designate as “letter writers.” Wendy Henning has done this for many years. Letter writing can become both time consuming and emotionally challenging, but by maintaining good boundaries this correspondence can be very rewarding. Like the pastoral visits, correspondence furthers our mission of knowing each other and experiencing the joy of connectedness in the manner of Friends.
The Prison Ministries Committee welcomes new members; for pastoral visiting see George and for letter writing see Wendy.