I bring to meeting for worship the intention that God will speak to me. In the silence I ask for it. And I wait in trepidation for an answer. I am aware that even though it is my greatest wish to receive a message from a burning bush in the manner of Moses -- this is unlikely to happen.
While there is some disappointment in the experience of never having had a "burning bush moment" I think I am blessed to 'hear' the voice of God in other unexpected ways.
Let me explain.
Humans, unlike all other creatures (that we are aware of -- and I hope to be proved wrong in this) have capacities that make us uniquely able to connect with the Almighty. We are self-aware, reflective, and have a conscience. Of these three, the last may be our most valuable asset in connecting with the divine. If listened to it is the perfect internal compass. Among Quakers, we speak about listening to that small voice inside.
Interestingly, all religious traditions have the notion of honoring one's conscience and following one's deeply held beliefs. Is it such a far stretch to acknowledge that this impulse might be the voice of the divine calling upon us? Our very own burning bush!
I think not, but do we bother to listen?
Messages can be VERY INCONVENIENT TRUTHS. Circling back to Moses, it took forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus to receive the tablets on Mt. Sinai. OMG!!
To be sure, it is far easier to listen to and walk a path that the media, or the government, or your parents, or your friends have laid out before you. That path is well worn and will cause very little friction in your life. The problem is that THAT PATH is about as authentic as fake fruit (looks good, but does not satisfy).
The queries that pique my conscience today are:
Report on Old Chatham Quaker Meeting’s Exhibit of a Solitary Housing Unit at the Columbia County Fair
From August 29 through September 3, 2017 members from four monthly meetings plus additional volunteers staffed a booth exhibiting a replica of a solitary housing unit at the Columbia County Fair for a total of 65 hours with 26 people participating. The replica was built by Doug Van Zandt who has taken the replica all around NY State.
The exhibit was funded by a grant from NYYM’s Outreach Initiatives Support Fund, an allocation from OCQM’s Bob Bacon Fund Bacon Fund for Peace & Justice and with additional support from OCQM’s Special Projects Budget. Our meeting is very grateful for the financial support it received to present this exhibit again this year.
Our goals were to advocate for passage in the NY State Senate of the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Incarceration (HALT) Act, (the NYS Assembly passed the HALT Act in June), to educate about the problem of mass incarceration in the United States and to raise the profile of our meeting in the community. We conducted training within our meeting about the HALT act and how to listen carefully to opposing views. We put up all the materials available at the fair on our website. We obtained 360 signatures for the HALT petition which we sent to Victor Pate at the Office of The Correctional Association of NY. Didi Barret, NYS Assembly member for District 106, stopped by as did Tistrya Houghtling who is running for NYS Assembly District 107. They were both very supportive.
We kept a diary in the SHU which received many entries, some unsympathetic, but most expressing compassion and understanding. We were interviewed by Corrine Carey, a volunteer from radio station WOOC , who made six visits to our exhibit, to tape fairgoers’ reactions to it and to talk with our volunteers. We distributed a lot of material on the HALT act and on mass incarceration as well as brochures on our meeting and wallet sized cards with our website and phone number. We displayed copies for sale of Ellen Condlief Lagemann’s Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison and discussed the book with several people. We had scores of lengthy conversations with prison guards, ex prison guards, families with current or former prisoners, and the general public, some of them very emotionally moving. Several people remembered our exhibit from last year. It was an excellent outreach project for our meeting.
Challenges this year were soliciting volunteers for the shifts, enduring the heat at the fair exhibit, keeping the committee on track with regard to fulfilling their responsibilities timely as they are all very busy and not having the time for following up those who indicated on the petitions they wanted additional information.
I staffed the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) exhibit on Saturday evening. The Old Chatham Quakers displayed a replica of a SHU at the Columbia County Fair to raise awareness among voters to institute a law that governs how people are held in solitary confinement (HALT Legislation - Humane Alternatives to Long Term incarceration).
What I did not expect was that an eleven-year-old girl would move me to tears.
As I sat there during a lull in activity a young girl of mixed race walked up to the SHU replica and looked it over.
"Do you want to go in?" I said. "
"What is it?" she replied.
"Check it out and I'll tell you after."
A few minutes went by ... and then a few more ... and the girl emerged somewhat different than when she walked in.
"What was your experience like in there?" I said.
"How can they do that to people, I'd lose my mind," she said.
There are times when after all the discussion and wrangling over an issue something gets said that rings out like a clear bell. This was it. Out of the mouths of children, we hear the truth.
It reminded me of that scripture in Mathew 18:3 "you must be as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven." Maybe this is true because children have a closer relationship to the divine not having been jaded by things of the world or maybe it is because they just express what is right there in front of them without the need to censor themselves. Either way this scripture has power in its simplicity.
What rang true for me was that this eleven-year-old girl was connected to compassion and empathy for another human being through her own experience. She was able to map what she felt inside herself onto how another human being might feel. These emotions of empathy and compassion is what Christ was likely referring to when he admonished us to "be like children."
Today we need more of this "child-like" energy. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the US government is destroying this child-like innocence by detaining (let's be honest with our language -- jailing) children. Many of these children are probably feeling the despair and desolation that people feel in solitary confinement. And without putting too fine a point on it -- THIS POLICY IS WRONG!
There are over 500 children still separated from their mothers and fathers and this is a crime of monumental proportions according to our faith. Christ said: "If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
This is very strong language and something our alleged leaders might wish to take note of.
What this eleven-year-old girl taught me was that it is never too late to become as a child. To open our eyes and see like a child. To cut through all the arguments and words and just be able to simply have an experience that moves us.
I would be interested in learning from the people who “sat” at the SHU exhibit at the Chatham Fair. Just a short collection of thoughts from you with, perhaps, a view toward gathering the thoughts together in some way and perhaps publishing them in SPARK or something.
Here is what I have been thinking during my shift at the SHU.
...I have spent a part of my life wondering how it would be to be someone else? What would they be thinking, etc.?
And so I think about what it would be like to be sent to prison for a long or even short time.
On arrival I would first notice and HATE the noise! Then the smell of so many humans gathered in one place, maybe not having bathed in a while. And then, of course, the “vibrations” from so many people being in a place not of their choosing.
Then I would start thinking that I do not have ANY control over any part of my life. My existence relies on the “good will” of a number of someones who don’t know me at all, who have no reason to like or dislike me. My existence relies partly on whether they enjoyed their breakfast for example.
I have absolutely no control over any part of my life and nobody cares about me. AT ALL.
In some ways it would be a relief to be sent to Solitary Confinement and be separated from the rest of those incarcerated. Of course, I still wouldn’t have any protection from the persons who have entire control over my life for their eight hour shift.
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