Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Virginia Membrey

When I was  asked to be a Quaker chaplain for Shepton Mallet prison I felt my background in probation/social work would equip me well. This proved to be true in the pastoral/rehabilitative side of the work. The spiritual, religious side has been more challenging.  I have had to question my own beliefs and values along the way – particularly in response to the probing deep questions and comments of the prisoners (and other fellow chaplains!). It has been an on-going learning experience.

The national Quaker network and structure has been of tremendous value to me. I attend the annual QPC conference and some weekend training programmes. I have contact details for all other QPCs, so we can communicate whenever necessary. Also, when prisoners move within the prison system, we can ensure some continuity of care. I belong to Quakers in Criminal Justice (QICJ), and value their annual conferences and the networking they enable.  It is easy to feel isolated in our individual prison settings.

Many prisoners have told me they would never have met Quakers outside of prison. However, many who arrive at Shepton have had positive experiences of Quaker chaplains in other prisons, which makes my job easier. One such, who has already served over 40 years, has been helped by a variety of Quakers over the years, and has found this invaluable. As prison is so often the prisoners’ only Quaker experience I feel an extra burden of responsibility in my role.

My QPC work has three components: - sharing statutory team duties, pastoral and rehabilitative care, and worship. I hold fortnightly Meetings for worship, and some outside Quakers come to join us. The opportunity for the men to meet “outsiders” is crucial. We share our beliefs and experiences together.  So many times prisoners have said how much they value the fact that we focus on looking for the good in them and not the bad. Shepton prisoners are all lifers, which means many of the men stay for some years, thus enabling us to get to know them well – a most rewarding experience. The “outside” Quakers are an invaluable support to me, and contribute towards our emphasis on pastoral and rehabilitative care of the men.

One of the prisoners, who had experienced an outside Meeting, asked if we could have our own “Away Day” as so many outside Meetings have. We have now had a number of these, where we have an hour long worship, a speaker and the men then give us some entertainment in the evening. A significant number of “outside” Quakers come to these days, giving them an opportunity to obtain greater insight into prison life. It also helps to raise our Quaker profile in the prison.

I have found other Quaker-initiated programmes to be very useful. I have organised 16 AVP workshops in Shepton so far. The results have been very positive, with transformational effects on some of the prisoners. We have been able to train 7 prisoners as inmate facilitators, which has given them a sense of control over their lives in such a disempowering environment.

Shepton has a high sex offender population, so I have also introduced Circles of Support & Accountability. One prisoner was actually released directly from Shepton as a result, and I drove him to his hostel in Oxford. Circles told me afterwards he had done so well on the programme they were considering writing it up as one of their success stories.

Our reputation as individualists and liberal thinkers (not to mention our activism!) can be threatening to a few fellow chaplains. Some see us as non-Christians, and therefore don’t know where to place us. This means we can have very different experiences, from total inclusion and equal participation in all chaplaincy duties, to being marginalized and only allowed entry to the prison when there are registered Quaker prisoners.  It also means that all of us Quaker chaplains adapt our roles to our individual circumstances, life experiences and backgrounds.

In conclusion, I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to be Quaker chaplain, which has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life. I feel it encompasses what Quakers in Action is all about!

For more information about Quaker prison chaplains, click here.

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