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Never Having Set Foot in the Meetinghouse

 

Every Sunday as I approach the meetinghouse of Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I am both elated at being there, and look in awe and wonder at the state of simplicity it represents. It’s not a big, grand structure but large enough to welcome those who attend, with room enough for a handful of guests. As one enters, one sees rows of wooden benches—to one’s left and right, facing one another—and a row of chairs along the back wall, facing the entrance.

I take a seat in my customary place, not necessarily pre­arranged but socially accepted as a small place for me, as others begin to drift in. My eyes, at first, twinkle with a strong sense of happiness as I see my fellow community members arrive, and I experience a heightened sense of welcome and oneness, being a part of this small but vibrant segment of society. Indeed, I feel and recognize I am among Friends who have come to accept me as one of their own. All of this, and I have never set foot in the meetinghouse.

My approach is mental and spiritual, as I am unfortunately imprisoned in a New York State prison serving a lengthy sentence. I first met Quakers and members of their prison ministry in the mid‐1980s. I was wandering in what can be described, using the words of George Fox, as “an ocean of darkness,” which seemed to engulf my very being. I would look in amazement as every week, religiously, a small but determined group of volunteers would be escorted to their meeting area next to the law library.

At the time, I was the executive secretary of the Green Haven Prison Branch NAACP. One of our members, who was the chairman of the voter registration project we sponsored (which promotes greater community involvement in the electoral process and provides an opportunity for people who visit the prison to register to vote if necessary), just so happened to be the clerk of the Prison Worship Group at Green Haven. I asked him about the people coming in, and he invited me to sit in to experience what it was like and about. I agreed to attend because I was interested in what these people found to be so important that they would volunteer their time to come into a prison. I mean, contrary to some beliefs, people don’t really “volunteer” to come into prison, do they? At the time, the news was filled with stories of horror involving the use of drugs and its negative impact on communities, families, and users. So I attended the meeting … and have never left! I became so interested that I graduated both the basic and advanced training of the Alternative to Violence Program (AVP), which is still in operation today, and, after becoming a member of the Prison Worship Group, I was honored to serve as clerk of the meeting.

I arrived at the Auburn Correctional Facility and was overwhelmed to have finally found a Quaker prison worship group… After my first opportun­ity to meet with them, I cried in my cell that night.

In 1997, for reasons still not too clear today, I was trans­ferred to another prison which did not have a Quaker worship group. However, I was fortunate to have established a strong bond and linkage with members of the New York Yearly Meeting Prisons Committee and members of both Bulls Head‐Oswego and the (then) Clintondale Meetings, and with a member or two of Poughkeepsie Meeting. My lifeline was (and still is to this day) Mary Cadbury of Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting. She, along with the late Marge Currie of Bulls Head, and Sylvia Rorschach and Michele Elone of Clintondale helped to keep me focused upon the Light that has begun to shine within me. For a good 16 years, I was transferred from prison to prison, and while at no time was there a Quaker worship group for me to attend, I held on to the faith of those who held faith in me. That has helped me to understand what those Quaker volunteers felt way back when I was first introduced to them in the 1980s. In all of those years, Quakers have been my breath of life (if I may use that phrase without offending anyone).

In 2013, I arrived at the Auburn Correctional Facility and was overwhelmed to have finally found a Quaker prison worship group (the first prison worship group in New York State). After my first opportun­ity to meet with them, I cried in my cell that night. It was truly overwhelming, but nothing like what I felt when I returned to Green Haven, what I would affectionately call the “place of my re‐birth!”

I set these pictures and arrange them in a manner that allows me to see what I’d see as I approached the meetinghouse.

My return to Green Haven was heaven‐sent, but we were immediately set upon by indecisions and confusion, not of our choosing but, in my opinion, as a test to question our resolve.

My first visit was with, of course, Mary Cadbury. She is a Quaker from birth, and without her guidance, I truly do not know what state of mind I would be in. Through her, I have come to meet many members of Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting, and I felt it was important to honor her in the best way I knew how: I sought membership in Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting. After meeting with a clearness committee and others who were instru­mental in this process, in November 2016, I was officially accepted as a member. I have since met with many members of our meeting—via both visits and correspondence—and have accepted them—as they have me—as family. It is hard to explain in words: to identify the sense of community, oneness, and inclusion that Friends have brought into my life and how much it means to me to have them share of their lives.

As I write this, I am clerk of our preparative meeting (a designation acquired in 2006). While we strive to be socially accepted as a religious body with the current prison administration, we worship with a clear sense of knowing that the hardship we face shall pass as another experience in our lives.

So, how do I attend meeting for worship with Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting? Well, I have been sent pictures of our meetinghouse: greetings on the bulletin board; on the outside, the front of the entrance; as well as pictures of the four corners and walls of the space within. There are also pictures of sitting members, thanks to my elder brother David Leif Anderson. I set these pictures and arrange them in a manner that allows me to see what I’d see as I approached the meetinghouse, as I noted at the beginning of this article.

Centering is always a welcome challenge, for, as one would expect, prison can be a noisy place and competing conversations can be overwhelming. What I do is draw myself into the pictures and focus upon the images and people therein. I have accompanying pictures of places visited by Friends and sent to me over the years with scenery that, for me as a person raised on the concrete pavements of New York City, gives me visions of natural beauty without the clutter of building structures and the like.

I have come to learn that I have transformed my sense of loneliness into a growing sense of solitude.

As I allow myself to dwell in these scenes of nature, I explore how over the years I have become a better person through my relations with members of the Society of Friends. I ponder the age‐old question: “What is life all about?” I ponder what it was to have been lost but now found as a person who seeks to give of himself to share with those who are less fortunate. I reflect upon myself as a better person, for I seem to attract better people in my life. I have come to learn that I have transformed my sense of loneliness into a growing sense of solitude; that what I seek in life now is to be better, to do better, and that in order to do better, I must be better.

 

The source of my loneliness was a search for whom I was—outside of myself—but that loneliness was also a plea for me to begin to look inside of myself to find that sense of oneness with creation. That what I may have done in the past is not who or what I am today and that each day affords me an opportunity to begin anew.

For me, this is the ability to finally have found a sense of purpose in my life. And this new sense of awareness has awakened my spiritual life in a manner that never happened before.

I find the words of Paul A. Lacey, in Nourishing the Spiritual Life: Finding Companionship, best express what I feel. He states:

Even in the most rigorous silence and solitude, in the lives of cloistered religions, or hermits given over to the practice of intense prayer, the search for God’s will is also the search for companionship. Certainly, it is a search for the companionship of God, but it also seeks out those companions in the search whose struggles illuminate our own, whose discoveries give us the cour­age to persist, whose witness clarifies and sustains our own.

He further shares:

Among the best ways we use solitude and silence is to invite into our company, and give attention to, those other witnesses who enlarge the boundaries of possibility for us, who act as reality checks, confirmation, and examples for us.

By establishing my private meeting space within the confines of my prison cell, I hold my Quaker meetinghouse and those therein within the Light of the Creator and allow the thought of their presence to shine its Light upon me. And in this way, we worship as one, with me never having set foot in the meetinghouse.

Yohannes "Knowledge" Johnson is a member of Bulls Head-Oswego (N.Y.) Meeting and is clerk of Green Haven Preparative Meeting. He was born and raised in Harlem, N.Y. He has been in prison since 1980 and is currently working on a petition in support of executive clemency in New York State.

Posted in: Features, Outside the Meetinghouse

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16 thoughts on “Never Having Set Foot in the Meetinghouse

  1. City & State
    Wilmington Delaware
    Loved the article. I am a Quaker who as a volunteer attends support groups both inside the prison and with returning citizens outside the prison. I admire the spirit of the author.

  2. Patrick Dobbs says:

    City & State
    Wales UK
    A very effective piece of writing.…Good luck.

  3. Wendy Malepeai says:

    City & State
    Fagitua, American Samoa
    Dear Yohannes “Knowledge” Johnson,
    Thank you for writing this article about your experience as a Quaker. I found it interesting and illuminating.
    Best wishes to you. I will think of you when I get to Meeting myself.
    Wendy Malepeai

  4. Barbara Lewis says:

    City & State
    honesdale pa
    A wonderful, powerful story of the relationships between Quakers and incarcerated people.
    Thank you. Barbara

  5. Trevor Bending says:

    City & State
    London, UK
    This Friend has written a heart‐warming piece of surprises, hope and Friendship. I am drawn to comment by the curiosity that must very probably come to most who read it.
    Yohannes writes ‘That what I may have done in the past is not who or what I am today’ but of course don’t we want to know why he has spent 40 years in jail?
    It might be that it is none of our business and I will quite understand if Yohannes does not wish to be drawn on this.
    If however he is prepared to share this part of his story with those who read it here and perhaps his reflections on ‘who he was then’ as well as ‘who he is now’, it would be very welcome and might be ministry of use to many of us.
    Trevor (member of London West Area Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting).

  6. Heather Pens says:

    City & State
    Olympia, WA
    I hope you are able to leave prison and participate in a Meeting outside of the walls.
    I met my husband in a Friends Meeting inside a prison. He was able to be set free after 30 years in prison. He used his time in prison to help out and friend those who were in special need of a friend. Being honest about his crimes was a big part of his integrity.
    It seems you have a great deal of strength and faith. You can have a great influence on those around you by living out your values.
    Thanks for letting us know you a little.

  7. Sharon says:

    City & State
    Traverse City, Michigan
    Thank you, Yohannes Knowledge Johnson, from northern Michigan Friends of the Light. Wishing you well.

  8. Pam Arnold says:

    City & State
    Denham Springs
    Thank you, Yohannes Johnson, for sharing your beautiful story with us.

  9. Ivan Hutnik says:

    City & State
    Surrey, UK
    What an utterly inspiring article. The Light of the Creator so clearly illuminates the life of Yohannes within the confines of prison.

  10. Ruth Naylor says:

    City & State
    Bluffton, OH 45817
    This is very interesting. Yohannes Johnson, thanks for sharing your light. I am curious about your friend Mary Cadbury. Back in the early 1950’s there was a Mary Foster who taught mathematics at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio. Chris Cadbury taught English. I had both of them as teachers my freshman year there. I know that Mary and Chris were later married to each other. Could this be the same Mary Cadbury?

    Yohannes, you will be in my prayers. The world needs more growing Christians like you.

    1. Bill Leicht says:

      City & State
      Ancramdale, NY
      RUTH NAYLOR, Thank you. I immediately called Mary Foster Cadbury to share your comment. She was not sure who this “Ruth Naylor” was from so many years past— “perhaps it’s her married name?”. Of course, it was your Mary Foster [Cadbury], now 93, who, with Chris Cadbury, taught at Olney Friends.

      I have hesitated, though tempted, to drop my AVP Volunteer status in order to meet Knowledge Johnson as an extraordinary Friend. However, my leading is some day to return to Greenhaven Correctional Facility (where in 1992–1993 I served as AVP “outside coordinator” and Facilitator.) to share the physical nonviolence methods (“Aiki AVP”) that I have learned and developed since.

  11. City & State
    Chester
    I am very moved to read this account by Yohannes “Knowledge” Johnson of finding faith in a Quaker worship group in prison and then maintaining that faith over long years when it was not possible to meet in worship with other Friends. I rejoiced to read of him finding Quaker fellowship again in person and becoming a member of Bulls Head‐Oswego Meeting. I feel enlarged by “meeting” the author in this way, and I am grateful for the larger meeting for worship and fellowship in the Spirit which this essay reveals.

  12. City & State
    Chester
    I am very moved to read this account by Yohannes “Knowledge” Johnson. I feel enlarged by “meeting” the author in this way, and I am grateful for the larger meeting for worship and fellowship in the Spirit which this essay reveals.

  13. Brian Humphrey says:

    City & State
    Wilton Manors
    Thanks for your post, Johannes “Knowledge” Johnson.
    I once visited an Ojibwe guy in a state prison for 1 1/2 years.
    Experience with Quakers prepared me for that relationship.

    We had met because, while he was awaiting sentencing, I was asked to evaluate his speech and language in the county jail because he stuttered.
    I was working at an Indian‐run health clinic at the time.
    I agreed to visit him in prison, and he added me to his visitors list.

    In a number of tribal traditions, when someone says, “I want to see you,” it means that they want to be in your presence.
    It does not necessarily mean that they want to talk a lot.

    Our prison visits, and our visits after his release, involved more listening than talking, and we listened well.
    Although I cannot hear your voice, Johannes “Knowledge” Johnson, I am listening.

  14. Liz Willis says:

    City & State
    Dover Plains, NY
    Your article describes the essence of there being no walls. I have been attending mid‐week meetings affiliated with the Bulls Head‐Oswego group. Bless you

  15. Miriam Lange says:

    City & State
    Portland, OR
    I found this author to be amazingly gifted in bringing to life his spiritual awakening and powerful connection to the Light and to Quakers manner of silent worship. Thank you Johannes “Knowledge” Johnson for being so open, vulnerable and eloquent in expressing your lived transition from loneliness to solitude to becoming a Member of your Meeting!

    It makes me think and feel that reaching others in prison and/or who can’t attend Meetings for worship can be a transformative experience for others. It reminds me of an article I read in this Journal some months ago in an issue entitled: “Going Viral”. A Meeting attender/member in Britain recorded a Meeting for Worship and some how posted it online and got a lot of positive feedback.

    Maybe our Meetings for worship are to be boundless, and open to others in all sorts of circumstances and not just for those who can attend in person.

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