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

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.

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