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New Beginnings

As clerk of the Sing Sing Quaker Meeting, I am blessed to have the opportunity to receive and read Friends Journal each month. As I am a prisoner, the November 2000 cover, depicting a prison cell and the words “Friends and the War on Drugs” caught my attention. The article “Silence Is Complicity” by Sam Chamberlain was a well‐written representation of the present state of affairs concerning the criminal justice system. As I pondered the article’s contents, a thought began to grow, urging me to share during silent worship at Sunday morning meeting.

Several days later, when a Friend from Purchase (N.Y.) Meeting brought the same article to my attention, I commented that I also had read it. An interesting discussion ensued. Later I began to realize that another war, the war against our spirit, is being waged with silence; and it is growing stronger all the time. Many wars are being fought in places around the world, but it seems as though the soundless wars of racism, false imprisonment, injustice, discrimination, etc., are the most dangerous wars, as they are
kept quietly tucked out of public consciousness. Could the reason be fear that our own conscience will hold us accountable?

As a man in prison for the first time, in a world very different from my upbringing, I have become painfully aware of the struggle that many people have faced throughout their lives. Yet prison, my home for the last 15 years, has been the greatest learning experience of my life. I am not proud of causing two people to lose their lives. I am deeply sorry this tragedy occurred. It is a debt I will carry with me always. However, I have worked very hard to become educated and understand my behavior in the past and present. Today I am well aware that when we help others, we help ourselves.

As a legal rights advocate (jail house lawyer), I have witnessed a gradual deterioration in the number of prisoners who litigate important issues because of their inability to pay the filing fees now required. Issues such as poor medical care, due process violations, guard brutality, discrimination, and other important concerns are being swept under the rug, and the battle to preserve human rights is being lost. The struggle against a political force that cares nothing about rehabilitation, constitutional rights, those who have made a mistake, or those who live on the other side of life’s fences has become my labor of love. It is an endeavor that has brought greater purpose and meaning to my life. And in spite of being denied parole on two different occasions based solely on the nature of the crime, I will continue to do positive things while I am in here and when released. I am sure these issues are significant both inside and outside of prison.

I am impressed by the article “Silence Is Complicity.” I am convinced God leads us to new challenges each day—and I am thankful. It is time for us to come together in spiritual oneness and listen to the voices of our spirit, what I call “soul talk.” Our ability to communicate spiritually connects us in our diversified unity. George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, was so moved by the inner experience that he said, “The Lord … let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, and surpasses all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can get by history or books.” Gustavo Gutierrez, a Catholic priest, says it very simply and beautifully: “Theology will then be speech that has been enriched by silence.”

People of faith, any faith, need to be conscious of the wars being waged against those who “stand with their backs to the wall” and need to return to their beginnings, standing up for what is right and doing what is right. Howard Thurman, a mystic and author of Jesus and the Disinherited, said it forthrightly:

We must abandon our fear of each other and fear only God. We must not indulge any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be yea‐nea; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.

It matters not where we are; it matters what we are willing to stand up for.

John Mandala
Ossining, N.Y.

Posted in: Features, March 2001

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