Criminal Justice reform is catching fire in Quaker communities around the country, in large part due to the publication and popularization of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” The facts embedded in every page are undeniable and horrifying, and illustrate a truth that many have known for years, that these injustices are tied directly to this country’s history of slavery. It’s as if the book has finally made it okay for Quakers (and others) to speak up against injustice and to face our country’s past. This book, following on the work of many other activists, has undermined our society’s mainstream narrative of capitalism and greed, and opened up space for us to express our dissatisfaction with business as usual. When we fight for justice, our communities come alive. And it’s happening more and more.
The Philadelphia western suburb widely known as the “Main Line” (due to its origins as a string of towns built around a historic railroad line) is not where you would expect healing justice to catch fire. But Quakers in the area are experiencing the injustice of our broken criminal justice system in their midst. After one particularly powerful meeting for worship on Sunday morning at Merion Meeting on the Main Line, an attender who had spent time in prison shared her struggle to live a productive life due to her criminal record. In response, Merion Meeting felt itself being pushed to begin to work to change the system of punishment and incarceration.
I actually know a great deal about the Main Line—I spent my childhood in this bastion of wealth, attending Radnor Monthly Meeting. Like any place in the United States, the Main Line is full of contradictions. But much of what you would expect is, in fact, true—people are largely unaware of what is going on outside of their close social circle, high powered career and/or the high powered education of their children.
When I was invited by Bob Campbell, the clerk of Merion Meeting’s “Beliefs into Action” committee, to present information about AFSC’s work in healing justice, I was both thrilled and cautious. Would these Friends really be interested in taking action?
Bob and I had spoken on the phone earlier that week and he had shared with me his community’s burgeoning interest in this issue. Bob had searched for resources and actions related to reform of our criminal justice system. Having known about AFSC and contributing for many years, he thought he’d contact us to see if we had done any work in these areas. He found a great deal.
AFSC has a long history of working on healing justice, and currently has a variety of programs that are working directly with those affected by the system to help heal the wounds that are so often created (or unaddressed) while serving time in a prison facility. Solitary confinement, recidivism, re-entry, prevention, privatization of prisons—AFSC’s work spans the wide array of issues that surround the system.
Once Bob had gotten in touch with me, I knew that I would have a whole host of resources to share with the meeting as they explored this leading together. Part of my work as the Friends Relations Fellow is to help Quaker congregations partner with AFSC to take on social justice concerns connected to AFSC’s work. This is the basis for the AFSC meeting/church liaison program. The program is one of support and facilitation.
When I met with the other members in the committee one Sunday morning, I knew that Merion Meeting was poised for action. Every person at the gathering—around seven—had a unique and clear passion for the issue, and was resolved that others must also know about these issues, too. They also knew that they did not know enough, and I was able to provide them with resources for learning more.
I suggested a few ways to get started, one of which was to see if there were other congregations in the area that were working on this area, and who might be interested in joining forces. Often it can be daunting to launch a program within your Quaker community or the wider community.
I was also able to suggest starting out with an awareness campaign to mobilize more people in the meeting, and more clearly identify what actions could be taken by the group in the future. I also suggested that people within the meeting connect with people inside prison walls, through prison visitation or letter-writing. Lucy and I have learned from other Quaker congregations working on these issues that it often takes time and patience for these projects to really take hold. But you have to start somewhere.
Once Bob and others on the committee saw the rich array of resources available from AFSC, they knew that they would have legs to stand on in this work: “I knew right away that there would be a network, so to speak, within the AFSC community that could help us focus on this topic with some expertise and that what we learned and found out would be credible, it was something that people were actually working on.”
Several months, and several meetings later, Merion Meeting is launching an Adult Education program in the fall focused on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and has plans to partner with Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church to host a public speaker and conduct a series of seminars in various focus areas related to criminal justice.
The “Beliefs into Action” committee does not have the charge of taking on specific “issues” like many meeting’s peace and social concerns committees—rather, it helps members of the meeting consider how the promptings of the spirit can actually bear fruit within the entire meeting community and perhaps even lead to action. Bob Campbell has helped the group come up with a focus and a direction, and the various members have had concrete tasks to accomplish between meetings.
I’m looking forward to working with more meetings as the promptings of the spirit lead their bodies to take action together and in partnership with AFSC and people of faith and conscience everywhere.
If your Quaker congregation would like to partner with AFSC on working to address mass incarceration or a number of other issues on which AFSC is focused, consider becoming a part of the AFSC meeting/church liaison program which will be launching for its second year in the next few weeks. To sign up, email Madeline at firstname.lastname@example.org.