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Does the Spirit drive the work? One Quaker meeting’s response to mass incarceration

By: John & Gail Fletcher
Published: June 12, 2014

South Central Yearly Meeting Spring

Photo: AFSC / Madeline Schaefer

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression before—organizing Quakers is like “herding cats,” an impossibly frustrating task, often leading to an overabundance of structures created to quell the insecurities of so many strong-minded individuals.  But that doesn’t stop us from trying to work together, motivated by a deep, Spiritually grounded commitment to justice. This spring, I witnessed one Yearly Meeting employ a variety of methods—both spiritual and intellectual—to bring together one Quaker body for deep, impactful social change work grounded in Love.

I was invited down to Bruceville, Texas, to attend the South Central Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions in April, during an early Easter weekend.  The theme of their yearly session was “Am I My Sisters' and Brothers' Keeper?: Quaker Response to Mass Incarceration,” and included a plenary presentation by AFSC’s Lewis Webb.  I came along to support Lewis, and to speak with folks about we might organize as a wider Quaker community to join and support the movement to end mass incarceration.

It was my first visit to Texas, a state that has a larger than life reputation, and for good reason, including its position as the leader of executions in the country.  So I can’t say that I was expecting it to be particularly beautiful, but it was. Splendid, even.  The grass was lush and the wildflowers painted the prairies with orange, blue and yellow. 

I was equally struck by the emotional warmth that pervaded the gathering—everyone was rejoining a large extended family, generously including even those newer to the community. I could feel their commitment to truly know one another.  I could tell that many had formed long and strong relationships, built over years, through hardships and celebrations.  They had come together to suffer, to question, to celebrate and to do good works.

The weekend was spent considering issues of criminal “justice” and mass incarceration from both a personal, spiritual perspective, as well as a theoretical, political one.  Many people had been working with incarcerated people for many years already, and many had a chance to share their experience and ask, “What can we do together”? 

Members of South Central Yearly MeetingParticipants that weekend took part in worship sharing on the topic of prison concerns, engaged in workshops about restorative justice and the economic drivers of mass incarceration, and heard the personal stories of others at the gathering working in prisons and with people who were formally incarcerated. 

By developing and lifting up the sanctity of relationships—not only the relationships that they had with one another, but also the relationships that individuals built with people inside prison—those gathered at the annual sessions were able to go deep and think about what it truly means to create a society in which our neighbor is truly honored.  This was not a weekend for “herding” anything—it was an opportunity to love and to know one another.

Organizing with love and a powerful analysis of the systems of oppression in this country, we not only transform the wider society, but we transform our own communities.  We ground our Quaker communities in the humanity we see in every person.  We do more than organize—we transform.

But what will happen after that powerful weekend together, considering mass incarceration?  It is hard to say exactly where the body will be lead next. But several members started a working group of the Yearly Meeting, dedicated to continuing this issue, and many meetings signed up to stay in touch with the AFSC, as Meeting/Church liaisons. 

Although they do not know their precise next steps, they were brought close that weekend and inspired to continue this work, together, to create a culture in which we do not allow for races to be “othered”, a culture of love, of acceptance, of a commitment to creating alternatives where each person is served.

What follows is the story of how this Yearly Meeting’s focus on mass incarceration “came to be”—through the hard work and tireless dedication of the Quakers in Norman, Oklahoma, in particular John and Gail Fletcher, the writers of the below post.  I met both of them at the Corporation Meeting two years ago, and have been inspired ever since by their commitment to end mass incarceration. John and Gail attended AFSC’s workshop on Mass Incarceration at the 2013 Friends General Conference gathering, and understand their connection to the organization as a chance to build a powerful, national movement.  - Madeline

In 2006 when the Norman Friends Worship Group was resurrected from the smoldering ashes of an “up and down / start and stop” 40 year-old worship group, we decided to introduce some new elements to help hold us together and foster both our spiritual and community growth. One step that we decided upon was to launch a group effort to address a particular social concern.

Flowers at South Central YMIt was our good fortune in 2006 that the AFSC’s traveling Eyes Wide Open (EWO) National Guard Exhibit was available for us to display in Norman.  After using the traveling exhibit, we then became the sponsor of the Oklahoma EWO boots for several years. The experiences we shared as a group, and the constructive conversations we had with Norman residents, were invaluable to our spiritual growth as individuals.  Those experiences gave strength to the fragile Norman Quaker community. It was a 40-year highpoint for isolated Quakers in Norman Oklahoma.

The impact of the EWO project seemed to fade after a few years, and it was gradually dismantled across the country, but our Worship Group’s commitment to continue working on an issue of social concern was still very much alive. Through discernment, we chose to shift our attention from the violence and injustice of global wars to the violence and injustice present in our own state and community: mass incarceration. Oklahoma leads the world in the rate of women’s incarceration and is 3rd in the US for men’s incarceration. 

Our only question was where and how to start.  In 2010 we decided to set up teach-in booths at various public gatherings, most notably on the University of Oklahoma campus on football game days.  Our teaching amounted to providing facts and information supporting “smart on crime measures” to restore lives in contrast to excessively punitive “tough on crime measures” that destroy lives often for nonviolent crimes. What we didn’t anticipate is how much we would learn from formerly incarcerated people, their families and friends. 

Flowers at South Central YMA mother described her kind, friendly, nonviolent son’s drug addiction and how he was awaiting trial for his third drug arrest that will most likely lead to life in prison. Another mother told us how her son, who has completed ten years of a twenty year sentence, is only now able to enroll in a treatment program because of limited openings. A young woman told us that after being incarcerated for seven years for writing bad checks, she will always carry the ex-felon label that severely restricts her employment, housing, and access to financial resources in Oklahoma. We are now in the 4th year of this activity.

Midway during this period of community work (EWO followed by mass incarceration efforts), our 40 year old worship group was accepted in 2010 by South Central Yearly Meeting as Norman Friends Monthly Meeting. Today we are a small, slow growing Meeting with a strong commitment to doing Quaker work in our community. The AFSC Eyes Wide Open exhibit was our starting point and will always be considered a cornerstone of Norman Friends Meeting.

In our current work to end mass incarceration of nonviolent persons, we are pleased to be linked to other Friends across the country through AFSC’s Liaison Program. Through the sharing of ideas, experiences, and perhaps traveling exhibits like EWO, we anticipate moving forward in our work alongside other Quakers across the country.  As we all move forward in our social justice work, one might ask: “Does the spirit drive the work, or the work feed the spirit--or are they one?”

 

About the Author

John & Gail Fletcher

John and Gail Fletcher are members of Norman, Oklahoma Monthly Meeting. John is also a member of the AFSC Corporation. They work with their meeting to combat mass incarceration in their state and within South Central Yearly Meeting. Here they are pictured with other members of their meeting with the mass incarceration booth they take around to public events in the area in an effort to educate the community about the issue.