“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its works so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” – James 1:2
One may describe prison as living on a desert island amongst savages. But God is there too!
Another person might describe prison as the closest thing to hell on earth. But God is there too! It is a paradox in every respect, and it is a small representation of a modern society. We have meaningful jobs. We attend school and attend self-help classes to better ourselves. Unfortunately, there is much hostility, anger, and fear amongst the population. But God is there too!
Under the guidance and watch of Patapsco Friends Meeting at Mt. Hebron House, SMFF is a refuge or a spiritual sanctuary for a small group of men. Within this medium-security facility that has over 2000 inmates, for ninety minutes every Saturday morning, we nurture one another in living more fully in the “Christ within” or the “Inward Light” in each of us.
Quaker worship is one of three other religious services held on this particular day. Within this small group, a couple members have been attending for years and others have been attending just a few months, but we continue to welcome any curious seekers. I can say on behalf of our group that without a shadow of a doubt, this year has been one tumultuous year for our close-knit family. Spiritually we have been challenged. Physically we have been challenged. Emotionally we have been challenged. But through it all, we continue to strive to center inwardly collectively with Christ in mind and to aid each other by giving an attentive ear during individual hardships.
I am sad to say that last year Richard, our co-founder and oldest elder of this Meeting, was transferred without notice. He has guided us since the start of this oasis here in Maryland Correctional Institution – Hagerstown (MCI-H). As a group we were sad to hear of his sudden departure because we could not say our proper good-byes. And his departure brought each Friend back to the reality that every inmate will be transferred at one time or another during his incarceration for reasons unknown to him.
Fortunately, Richard was in great spirits and looked forward to his new facility and environment where he can “Live the Light, Spread the Light, Be Light” as our motto states. We do wish the best for him and will hold him in the Light and pray he is released soon. He will be deeply missed.
Meanwhile, we were blessed to have Darren (Tony), a talented poet Friend return to our family-oriented group. He was also transferred to another institution some time ago. Today, he is happy to be attending our Meeting again. He said he missed our Meeting while he was away and was saddened that no Quaker Meeting was held in his former facility. However, he did stay in touch with his pen pal, whom he first contacted through SMFF. Presently, he is employed as a barber. He looks forward to continuing art classes and attending his music group again.
Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee;
All things pass;
God never changes
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
– Saint Teresa of Avila
This past year we have read and reviewed several Pendle Hill publications that were also read at Patapsco Friends Meeting. Presently, we are reading and discussing the pamphlet titled “The Quaker Doctrine of Inward peace” by Howard H. Brinton. This past year, our favorite publication was titled “Some Thoughts on Becoming Eighty-Five” by William Z. Shetter. I believe his description touched each person here because every inmate contemplates the passage of time and aging. South Mountain Friends have been imprisoned between 5 and 31 years. Mr. Shetter’s summation on page 28 says it all: “why would anyone want to stop time and stay young forever? The genuine beauty of life lies in the way it is so fragile and fleeting, giving the gift of continual growth…more fragile fleetingness means more intense growth and hence more beauty!”
Furthermore, throughout the past year we have received and read Friends Journal. As one might be led, we have discussed several articles focusing on a diversity of issues. Each Friend here enjoyed N. Jeanne Burns’ suggestion in the January 2013 issue, titled “Blue-Collar Welcome.” She said in order to become more conscious in worship one might “ask hard questions about how welcoming your worship is for poor and working class people of all races and ethnicities.”
“For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the God’s glory displayed in the fact of Christ.” –2 Cor. 4:6 NIV
With the exception of one’s freedom, family and companionship, this facility is a microcosm of a normal society. We have various occupations throughout this institution. An inmate must work in order to earn good days for their early release. Unfortunately, inmates are only paid from $.90 to a few dollars per day. Gabriel has changed jobs from a Laubach tutor to a suicide prevention aide, and today he is working as a meat cutter in MCE meat processing plant. In fact, three Friends are employed in the same plant.
“For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of Life.” –Psalm 56:13
The topic of health has been a great concern for SMFF this past year, too. Sickness and illness such as the flu and the awful stomach norovirus have struck several Friends here. We had to endure the side-effects and pain without seeing a doctor or having access to adequate medicine and treatments available in your local pharmacy and hospital. Friends had to depend on other kind inmates to ensure their health would not deteriorate into something more serious. One Friend was placed on medical quarantine for precautionary measures after a spider bite. We sent him words of encouragement and enlightenment through letters and hand-made greeting cards. He was only held for a couple of days. One Friend collapsed due to the stomach virus and had to be rushed to see the nurse. Luckily, he was only dehydrated.
While some are dealing with illnesses that will cure with rest and time, some will need surgery. We will continue to hold a couple of Friends in the light. David is in need of a serious and expensive back surgery. The (for-profit) correctional medical services are denying him this needed service due to cost. Through Love and Truth, we hope and pray that someone will see it is the right thing to do.
Also, Perry is walking on crutches and will have two arthroscopic knee surgeries in the near future. We will listen and nurture him throughout his ordeal and his personal struggle to become less dependent on his pain medication. The threat of a relapse to his past addiction is dispiriting. Notably, he has regained contact with his oldest son. His spirits were much brightened when sharing recent photos of his family.
As Quakers, each of us attempts to stay active in other endeavors that reflect our core testimonies such as equality, integrity, peace, simplicity and community. In addition to striving to gain justice that has long eluded each of us through the legal system, we continue to participate in other activities.
Throughout our struggle to live amongst this maze of lawlessness and chaos we volunteer our time to programs involving community support. One Friend, Joe, is an active member of MCI-H’s Lifer’s Conference. He is assisting with a fundraiser for the Maryland Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Also, he continues to support Prisoners Against Teen Tragedy (PATT).
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” –2 Cor 4:16-18
This past year a former attendee, Edward Clarke, was suddenly transferred. We were elated to hear of his parole release and it brought joy to our hearts and souls to hear of his attending PFM worship in Ellicott City. We enjoyed hearing a couple of Friends reminisce of their bike ride with Eddie.
Unfortunately, due to an unknown benign tumor in the brain or other serious illness, he had to be admitted into the hospital. To hear of his sudden serious medical problems after being released from a 26-year imprisonment was disheartening. We were more saddened to hear of his dear mother and uncle passing away. While attending SMFF, he spoke fondly of his mother and their loving relationship.
We were at peace to know a few Friends from Patapsco visited him and kept us informed of his condition before and after his surgery. We were also elated to know his condition improved and that he was released from hospital. It is truly uplifting and inspiring to us to know he is still looked after by concerned Friends. As it states in 1 John 3:11 NIV, “We should love one another.” And in 1 John 3:18, “…let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”
Every inmate who has endured a significant amount of time incarcerated will have a complicated and complex time readjusting to normal society. We will continue to hold Eddie in the Light throughout his difficult trials and tribulations. Presently, he is living in transition housing. Also, he has reconnected with Buster, another former SMFF attendee.
Through state budget cutbacks, legal setbacks, funerals, transfers, sickness, depression, grief and pain, we have had weekly visitors. Through it all, outside Friends from Patapsco have been there for our small group by helping us to center ourselves inwardly and collectively to survive this turmoil we live in daily. Each visitor is deeply appreciated. Presently, we are planning our 8th Annual Gathering and Celebration. We look forward to everybody being together and maybe meeting a few more new Friends.
We would like to say “thank you” to each outside visitor for just being you and sharing your unique life experiences that speak truth and love. And a special “thanks” to one outside Friend who hand-crafted necklaces and earrings for our loved ones. A smile on our loved ones’ faces is a smile on our hearts. They were truly wonderful and thoughtful gifts.
South Mountain Friends Fellowship Attenders.
Gabriel A. Cannon #257-863
Clerk, Pro Tem