In the five years I have lived in California, the deepest public worship experiences I have had, without a doubt, have been during my two visits to the Soledad Worship Group. This group is the “best-kept secret” in Pacific Yearly Meeting. There you find Friends with faith strong enough to humble you on the spot. I believe the worship in Soledad is especially deep both because many of its members are committed to personal transformation and because their circumstances require them to hand their lives over to God (however named), which is what it takes to truly hear the Word, to become Christ-like, and to experience covered meetings.
The worship in Soledad is so thick with Reality you can physically feel it. The depth of connection is profound. The love of the members for each other brings tears to my eyes. I felt more radically welcomed by Soledad Friends than any other worshipping community I have attended, joined, or visited – anywhere. This is a living, breathing, deeply connected community of committed Quakers and faithful attenders. I’m sure they also have their challenges, but the radical hospitality is palpable.
The Soledad Worship Group meets in the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California. It is under the care of Live Oak Monthly Meeting which meets in Salinas, half an hour away. Apart from five or so Live Oak Friends who come in from the “outside,” all of the members and attenders of the worship group are incarcerated. This worship group is significantly different from other meetings in Pacific Yearly Meeting. It is not dominated by white, middle-class, highly educated, elderly folks. It is not lacking in depth or purpose. It is not dwindling in numbers.
An evening with Soledad Worship Group usually consists of a “check-in” from each person around the circle, a period of waiting worship, and singing. When someone new attends, the Clerk gives a beautiful explanation about who Quakers are and what Quakers are about. (I was privileged to hear this once.) The group has quarterly meetings consisting of a day-long workshop. Although prison regulations prevent food sharing between Friends from the “inside” and “outside,” one or more of the “inside” Friends prepares a communal lunch for folks living at the facility and that allows the whole group to eat at one table.
Prisoners are not allowed to hold worship without outside participation, so the committed and faithful service of those Friends who make Soledad Worship Group possible is important. I believe this ministry needs to be recognised more formally within Pacific Yearly Meeting. Without recognition and support for their ministry, I am concerned that the yearly meeting will continue to ask these supportive Friends to take on other yearly meeting responsibilities, without due regard for the important work they are already doing in Soledad.
To be able to visit Soledad two or three times a month, Friends need to live fairly close to the facility and need to be prepared for a big commitment. These Friends carry a great deal of accumulated knowledge and relationships with inmates, corrections officers, chaplains and so on, and that experience makes their service – and our attendance – possible. I hope Pacific Yearly Meeting can find ways to uphold, support, and express gratitude for the beautiful and life-changing ministry these Friends carry.
Attending Soledad Worship Group takes some doing. Apart from whatever distance you have to travel to get there, you must obtain a one-day clearance by applying at least three weeks in advance. There is never any guarantee you will get in, but it is worth trying. It was confronting for me entering a prison for the first time, but after my first visit, I felt totally comfortable. Soledad is not a high security prison, and you do not have to go far into the facility to get to the chapel. Efforts to arrange visitors’ paperwork adds to the work of the Friends who regularly support the worship group from the outside, but visitors are welcome and much appreciated.
Something that struck me with tragic force the first time I attended Soledad Worship Group was that I knew in my heart that the welcome I received from the Friends I was meeting on “the inside” was not likely to be what they would experience in Friends meetings on “the outside.”
I have witnessed racism, classism, sexism, bias against the young, and other forms of oppression running throughout Pacific Yearly Meeting. In addition, I’ve witnessed a resistance to spiritual depth and Christian expressions of faith. How could I tell my Friends at Soledad that meetings on the outside do their best, but have little of the fervor, closeness, deep commitment, and unconditional welcome that they, at Soledad, offer?
I hope that Friends will visit Soledad, and that they will go to learn, to be humbled, and to reflect on how to make our home meetings worthy of Soledad Friends when they are released to our care on the outside. Far from being just an “opportunity for service” – as attendance at Soledad is described on the Live Oak Monthly Meeting website – this is also an opportunity for those, like me, on the outside to experience personal and spiritual growth. If you can’t visit, perhaps you could find a way to support the faithful Friends on the outside who make it possible for this worship group to exist and who are fully, humbly part of the beautiful worship group community. You can reach the Live Oak Friends Meeting online at: www.fgcquaker.org/cloud/live-oak-friends-meeting. ~~~
Sally Kingsland is an Australian living in California as the result of a leading. She leads a life of prayer and service, including as a spiritual companion. She is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM).