To Friends: A Call to Duty

Friendship is an abundant self-expression of giving, helping, caring, and expecting, existing in every corner of our world. So enticing is the desire and need for friendship that we often render and demand it without a second thought, without consideration of the significance, importance, and dedication that true friendships require. But when we rush into friendship, we can create false fondness or selfish expectation, and we often learn that the sincere friendship we gave is not the same that we receive, leaving our souls feeling injured and disillusioned. Friendship must be honestly given, gingerly cared for, tenderly touched, and softly spoken to. The slightest mishandling; the least, unintentional, wrong action; an inappropriate word; or its misuse—any of these can bruise the spirit of friendship, and send our desire to give and obtain it to the deepest corners of the heart, where it may never rise and trust again.

Many people, fortunately, understand that true friendship is unselfishly given and carefully cared for, while expecting nothing in return. To Quakers, friendship is an expression of love born and nurtured in the heart where it radiates unto the life of others. Like the sweet and captivating aroma of a blossoming flower, Quaker friendship arouses our interest and beckons us to explore its possibilities, calling us to give, to share, and to love. But yet, in at least one respect, contemporary Quakerism has much to be desired when it comes to true friendship.

In the Bible, God cautions us to be wary of the dangers of friendship. Some friendships are untrustworthy (Ps. 41:9), while others may entice us to sin (Deut. 13:6). But God also tells us that "a friend loves at all times" (Prov.17:17), is interested in our welfare (1 Sam. 18: 1), expresses sympathy (Job 2:11), gives helpful advice (Prov. 27:7), is always faithful (Prov.17:17), and, as Jesus tells us, friendship is sacrifice:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you." (John 15:10-14).

The founders of the Religious Society of Friends, I dare say, had a profound understanding of the concept and love of friendship, and of the message that God has for all of us. They understood we are all created in God’s image. As such, we are born with "the Inward Light" of the Holy Spirit. The Light is the connecting fiber between God and us, and in their silent worship early friends (including George Fox, Thomas Adam, Dorothy Benson, William Dewsbury, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooton, and John Stubbs), like us, communicated with God. They were inspirited by the Light and bound together by Christ’s love and an unshakable dedication to true friendship.

They also understood that the Light of God in us is meant to shine out through the world illuminating the path of misguided souls, souls that often fall victim to Satan, who "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). Because of their faith, love for God, and understanding of friendship, the founders of Quakerism were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. But their deaths were not in vain. They left a legacy, a desire, an inspiration, a dedication, and the meaning and workings of the Inward Light. They passed on to us, the children and inheritors of their faith, a Religious Society of Friends, their burning torch, so we may continue God’s earthly work through the Light that lies in our own spirits. New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, in the words of George Fox, instructs us to proclaim the teachings and beauty of the Inward Light:

Let all nations . . . hear the word by sound or writing. Spare no place, spare not tongue nor pen, but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth upon earth . . . be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people.

Many Quakers have forgotten this wonderful lesson. Without realizing it, we have become so entangled in the pursuit and maintenance of our earthly life that we are neglecting the very principles of our faith. We have, in essence, undergone a metamorphosis—an innocent (or purposeful) transformation from a giving, loving, and sharing Friend to an educationally refined, but crass, individual. The question, however, is not whether we have forgotten or changed. The question is: are we, as true Friends and Christians, still willing to carry on the torch of friendship; are we willing to sacrifice; are we willing to teach, to guide, to love, and to learn? The work is plentiful, but we must not despair, for it is not we who work, but God who works through us. The history of the Religious Society of Friends is filled with account upon account of the help and contributions made to society in general, especially to those in need. We must carry on Friends tradition and continue helping all people, regardless of their situation. From the wealthiest to the homeless, from the most legal to the most criminal we must continue our plight to teach of the Christ Within.

Prisons, for example, are filled with souls who require our concentrated efforts. Here lies a fountain, a vast reservoir, of possible valiant workers for God. Souls who in their confinement and solitude have caught a sense, a glimpse, of the workings and significance of the Inward Light, thus becoming an attentive audience rendering us the fabulous opportunity to teach and guide them. Incarcerated men and women actively attend our meetings and participate in our retreats with much gusto. But, quite often, they are disheartened by the lack of participation and interest by those Friends from whom they seek the teachings of the Light of the Holy Spirit; through whom their eyes are opened, allowing them to see the path of God’s righteousness. We proclaim, and encourage others to follow, the teachings of our Lord, but forget that Jesus "went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient." (1 Pet. 3:19)

As a Religious Society of Friends dedicated to creating a better world, it is our duty to be valiant, to be caring, to be Friends, to reach into the belly of the lion and bring out the souls it has devoured, especially those who seek our help. One must reach deep into the mine to retrieve the diamonds, and prisons are mines full of precious ones. Let us not forget, as Faith and Practice confirms, that "We have a concern, based partly on Friends 300-year history of imprisonment for conscience’s sake, for the humane treatment of those held in prison. There are many ways to help those convicted of a crime, as well as their victims, to rethink and remake their lives"— and one of the most important is through fellowship. As Friends we are able to do so because we have in us the connecting fiber of the Holy Spirit and understand the significance and marvelous workings of the Inward Light.

This friend, who has experienced no truer friendship than that of Quakers, humbly asks you to be as vigilant as the lion that roams the Earth for Hades, but instead, seeking souls to guide towards God. If you hear of a prison Friends meeting or of a prison Friends retreat, make it your duty to find out the particulars and try your best to attend. Give our Friends in prison some of your undivided time. Join the few Friends who are in fellowship with prisoners to rejuvenate and enlighten the imprisoned mind, strengthen the imprisoned soul, and offer hope and true friendship in a sometimes seemingly hopeless situation. If only one soul discovers and learns about the Light within, then God, and the spirits of our founding fathers and mothers, will have reason to rejoice.

Ismael Meléndez

Ismael Meléndez is a member of Eastern Prison Preparative Meeting in Napanoch, N.Y.