“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.”
– Lloyd Lee Wilson, Quaker
Dominque Stevenson, program director of AFSC's Friend of a Friend program, picked me up at the Baltimore train station and we drove the 90 minutes to Hagerstown, MD where I would accompany her into two prisons. Dominque told me that there isn't much in Hagerstown, and it's hard for families of the men that are incarcerated to get there, it's a long drive, some don't have cars...
In heavy rain we arrived at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) late in the afternoon and we walked up to the gates, chain link with endless concertina wire encircling the prison, and guard towers perched above us. We waited, one gate opened, then we stood in between two gates and waited as the second gate slid open to let us through. In the reception area, I walked through the metal detector and it buzzed. After removing my glasses and watch, I tried again, but the alarm sounded. The female guard told me I had to clear the metal detector to get in. Dominque said that it was my underwire bra that was setting off the machines, so I went into the restroom, took it off, walked through the metal detector successfuly this time, then put my bra back on. Dominque said this kind of treatment is common: families of incarcerated men often have to go through a lot to get in to see their loved ones.
We walked through several more doors and past a few guards into the central yard, and walked onto the manicured grass. On the way we passed a bright, noisy dining hall - a contrast to the quiet of the lawn. I don’t know what I expected, but the places we went in the prison felt like a community college to me, which felt both true to me and not true. The prison in some ways is just another place, full of people trying to make the best of the situation. But I also perceived that this pristine lawn masked a sense of the harsh reality of the place. I couldn’t but help think of schools and how much better equipped this facility was than the inner city school where I used to teach, how much better staffed, and what a difference this money would make if it were spent when these men were children.
A guard escorted us the last few hundred feet into the locked and empty classroom building, and then he called for the men to join us there. 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 she noted the income perpetuates the system.
Dominque has been working with the men at MCTC since 2006. The men themselves were instrumental in designing the program, establishing the focus on mentorship. 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 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 oneself 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 done it. She 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. Dominque reported on the Freedom School she’s engaged in establishing in Baltimore and how some of the men’s family members were involved.
It was 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 Corinthians 13, 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.”
The 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, ““It's a lot about experience. 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.”
Across the room, 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 came 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, 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, some painfully live with what they did. I wonder what does it do to us to miss their smiles, their wisdom, their amazing 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?
I asked Dominque, “If the pathology of the United States is her denial, what does that denial look like?” I proposed that it looked like a prison. Domnique said it also looks like the boarded up houses in West Baltimore from which many of these men come.
In my storytelling life the folk story I’ve been telling the longest, Tam Lin, is about love. I told the story for the first time at my brother's wedding. In it a man who has been imprisoned and enchanted by the fairy folk is released from that imprisonment by a young woman, Janet, who holds him while the monsters within are released. He turns into a bird of prey and tries to fly away, a bear that tries to bite her, a snake that tries to suffocate her, a cold block of ice, and a burning branch. Throughout it all she holds him fast and fears him not, until he turns into the branch that burns, at which point she throws the branch into the stream nearby. The spell is broken and Tam Lin becomes human again.
It seems to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. and those many who were part of the civil rights movement understood this story. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t just hold one person with that kind of fierce love, but he held the whole society while our monsters were revealed, he held us while the human re-emerged.
What role do we as Quakers have to play in holding our communities with such big love, with the kind of love that brings about such 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.