Being a Quaker prison chaplain for my Area Meeting is a great privilege, with great responsibility. It is very hard work, and very rewarding. I spend one day a week in a local prison. In the morning I work with chaplains of other denominations and faiths doing the ‘statutory duties’. I spend much time walking from one place to another, trying to look approachable. Men may see my badge and ask for something: perhaps a Bible, or a diary, or for me to get a message to someone, which in many cases I am not allowed to do. Some ask what ‘Quaker Chaplain’ means, some just want a chat.
Occasionally someone will ask me for a prayer. At first I found this very daunting. Another Quaker chaplain advised me to explain that I am a Quaker, and ask for a few moments silence, after which words seem to come. In my prayers I usually stress that of God within the man I am praying with. Most men say ‘amen,’ some cross themselves.
More occasionally, I am asked for a blessing, which originally I found impossible: Quakers do not go in for blessings. The first time I said I didn’t feel able to bless, but would send another chaplain. The man said, ‘Oh don’t bother.’ For a time I used ancient Celtic blessings, until quite unexpectedly, the words of a Quaker blessing came to me. I now use this:
Allow yourself to accept this blessing. May you find the peace you seek.’
In the afternoons I organise a silent Meeting. I don’t call it a Quaker Meeting for Worship as, like all prison chaplaincies, we are a multi faith chaplaincy. It is advertised on the wings and in chapel on Sundays as a ‘Multi-Faith Silent Meeting for Meditation, Mindfulness, Prayer and Worship.’
We usually have between three and ten men, and two local Quakers join us. Some men come to get out of their cells, and we can be disturbed by embarrassed giggling. But most weeks we have a deep silence for about half an hour. We end by all holding hands in a circle; at first I wondered how the men would respond, but only one has refused.
Then I ask, ‘would anyone like to share anything?’ Someone usually does, and I am moved by how often they say things like, ’that was wonderful.’ We have a general discussion for about half an hour, when men often share quite deep and difficult problems with us. I am always heartened by the way in which they offer help and support to each other. Then we have a cup of tea and a biscuit, and an opportunity to chat, or to perhaps offer support to individuals. We finish with another brief silence, after which they frequently thank the visitors and shake hands all round.
As it is a local prison those coming to meeting are constantly changing, but a few men are with us for months, sometimes years. One such was a ‘registered Quaker’, whom we miss sorely now he has moved on. He used to recruit men on his wing for the Meeting.
When I started, officers on the wings were very sceptical when I asked to collect men for a ‘silent meeting’, saying things like, ‘silence? Him?’ They are now more accepting, and say, ‘silent prayer.’
In my time as Quaker chaplain, I have become more understanding of other denominations and faiths, while becoming more certain of and rooted in my Quakerism. In particular I feel privileged to be able to see that of God in men of whom many might think this unlikely. This, I hope, may have helped me to strengthen my awareness of my own Inner Light. Yet I have also become more aware, particularly in our discussions, that while we all share the Light, there is also a universal Darkness in us all, which Quakers seem less willing to acknowledge. In the prison Meeting I often read Advice nine, from the Quaker collection of 'Advices and Queries'. It says, quoting George Fox, that in Meeting for Worship you may find ‘the evil weakening in you and the good raised up.’
For more information about Quaker prison chaplains, click here.