By Lucy Duncan
“Slowly we learn that we are all broken, all less than perfect, and that God loves us, each one, wonderfully even so. Slowly we learn that the real love for one another we crave is not the ideal love of my personal façade for your façade, but the imperfect intent to love that my flawed self can offer the real you.”
Dominque Stevenson, program director of the American Friends Service Committee’s “Friend of a Friend” program, picked me up at the Baltimore train station and we drove the 90 minutes to Hagerstown, Maryland, where I would accompany her into two prisons.
The program, which Dominque takes into four prisons, was designed by the participants in the prisons. Dominque says, “The men were concerned about the increase in violence between gangs/street organizations. They recognized that young men were involved in those organizations because they were seeking a sense of family and community. We discussed the problems as the men saw them and brainstormed the range of solutions.settled on a mentoring model because it allowed them to re-create family and community.”
Dominque had the mentors envision their younger partners (some incarcerated and treated as adults at only 14 years of age), write profiles and consider their needs inside of prison and after release. The program focuses on conflict resolution, problem-solving and building positive relationships. There are sessions on parenting, storytelling, managing anger, gender roles and how individual experiences relate to societal structures.
In heavy rain, we arrived at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) late in the afternoon. A guard escorted us into the locked and empty classroom building, and then he called for the men to join us. Almost all of the men incarcerated at MCTC are African American or men of color; most of the guards are white. The guard took us into a plain room with hard desk chairs. Dominque said most of the chairs were made with prison labor. People on the outside can buy the chairs and other items too for a low cost, but Dominque noted the income perpetuates the system.
One by one the men gathered in the room, all of them African American. It is clear that Dominque has had a long relationship with them — she has been working with the men at MCTC since 2006 — and that they were excited to see her and one another.
As for me, the men were very gracious and welcoming. When they greeted me, each of them looked me in the eye in a way that made me feel really seen, recognized. I noticed their energy, and felt as though I were in the midst of great spiritual strength, the kind borne of facing great hardship and finding peace and freedom in the midst of that.
The session began with Dominque talking about a few of the men who had been in the program and had been released. One of them had to take a train somewhere and wrote extensive notes to himself on how to do it, because he had been on the inside so long that he hadn’t ever taken a train. Dominque described the fear some of the men have when they are released, facing new experiences every day, trying to negotiate a world that isn’t very friendly to them.
It was then time for the men to begin their dialogue. Dominque said, “The basis for this program, for all we do, is love, but we haven’t talked about love for a while and it’s time again.” She invited a man to read a poem she brought. Then she asked, “What do we mean by love?”
As I listened to the men, I felt as though they were reciting 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, but the words were their own and had been written on their hearts.
A tall, older man started, “Love can be defined as a noun or a verb. When you’re in love, that feeling can fade. Then what? Mature love is about what you do, how you act, the sacrifices you’re willing to make.”
A younger man continued, “Love is a willingness to endure, tolerate those who are unpleasant, unkind, unforgiving. Love is patience, a willingness to withstand onslaught, stand on what you believe.”
A big man, who’s been in the program a long time, said, “Family has grown; we’re brothers here. We’ve stuck with this, didn’t let this fall. It’s black men seeing each other as each other.”
A man across the room answered, “Love is a service. You do something for someone else.”
Dominque responded, “I love the community like myself, but in order to have the big love, I have to show love to myself.”
A man with laughing eyes said, “My daughter is bitter, but she doesn’t have to do anything; I love her to death. I love her because I understand why she might be bitter. She doesn’t have to do anything though, I just love her; she’s my daughter.”
Across the room, an older man said, “Love makes us vulnerable, to feel another’s hurts.”
A man responded, “Sometimes love is letting go of someone, letting them make their own mistakes. I let you go, so you can learn yourself.”
Another said, “Look, we can only grow in our time. There’s no time to waste. But that’s why patience is so critical.”
One of the younger participants said, “How do we define family? If your brother’s been oppressed, help him. If your brother’s been an oppressor, help him by helping him to stop the oppression.”
Another responded, “Sometimes love and hate feel so close.”
The first man replied, “One issue is we lack understanding, and love is the highest degree of understanding. You can hate someone’s actions, but love the person. If you hate someone, you’re hating the creator. We need to hate the action. We hate others because we lack understanding.”
An older man said, “We have a government that doesn’t advocate love. I don’t expect the government to offer love. Humans make it up but don’t behave in human ways. We’ve come from communities that were denied love.”
Then was this definition of love, from a younger man, “Every heart is wounded. Love is a willingness to be vulnerable. You’ve got to be willing to admit you’re afraid. What we’re doing right now is vulnerable.”
“In this group we’re taking the risk of love. With what I shared, I could be played on. This does make you stronger,” responded one of the older men.
From across the room a voice said, “Doing this, it gives birth. Just yesterday I was sitting with police. He said, ‘I’ve been watching you, you deserve more than what you’re getting.’ Love, this kind of sharing, it gives birth.”
Too soon the guard came and told us it was time to finish up. The men said a very warm “good-bye” to me and invited me to visit again. We walked down the hall. I felt so safe in the midst of these men and asked them if they would be walking with us across the yard. They said, “No, we’ll be following after.”
Dominque said they used to walk with her, that she felt safer, more comfortable when they did, but the prison administration said they couldn’t anymore. Now she has to walk alone back across the lawn and out of the prison. We walked through the chain link fences, under the concertina wire, past the reception area, back to Dominque’s car for the drive back to Baltimore.
It felt so incongruous to me, to have such amazing spiritual energy locked up, hidden and almost inaccessible to those of us in the community. It’s clear these men are sharing their wisdom in the prison, changing their world, mentoring younger men and ministering.
But what could they do if they were among us, teaching us, living and growing? I don’t know what they did to get locked up — many are there on drug charges — but they all seem to have owned it, whatever it was, and some painfully live with what they did. I wonder what it does to us to miss their smiles, their wisdom, their amazingly powerful, loving energy. What does it do to us, to our hearts, to exile them apart, away from their children, their partners, their communities? Do we not arise from one spirit expressed in distinct earthen vessels? What about forgiveness?
What role do we as Quakers have to play in holding our communities with the kind of big love that brings about transformation? Can we offer one another such fierce love as Dominque and the men in this program offer one another? Can we hold one another as the walls and prisons around our hearts break open? Can we call out the human in one another, our communities and our institutions? My prayer is that we try.
Lucy Duncan is AFSC’s Friends liaison. She has been a professional storyteller for almost 20 years and has led retreats with Quaker meetings, helping Friends to tell stories of their spiritual experience. Lucy is a member of Goshen Friends Meeting of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. This piece was offered originally as a prepared message at New Garden Friends Meeting, then published on the AFSC blog that Lucy writes and edits, “Acting in Faith,” at www.afsc.org/friends. It was revised for publication.