“It’s a struggle for me on an ongoing basis to wrestle with my own internalized racism,” Judy Meikle admits. As she discusses how her calling to worshiping with imprisoned people has led her to a greater understanding of the effects of systemic racism, she explains, “I hear myself falling into the trap of exceptionalism, like somehow I’m the good antiracist—I’m not. I stumble all the time, I make mistakes. So I just want to name that and know that I am on this journey making mistakes because I want to do better, and I hope that with the guidance of Spirit others will join.”
Judy has also written about her prison ministry, and her work with the Inside Outside Prison Writing Collective, in Friends Journal. In “Get Thee Behind the Walls,” she says: “I enjoy with great anticipation receiving correspondence from my letter writer.… We speak of our faith, current events, our daily lives, and now that we have built a level of trust and admiration, we speak of our personal hopes and dreams for the future. I am grateful for our connection. I have the sense that we are truly building a bridge between two sides of a river.”
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One of the most important aspects of the prison ministry for me is connecting people on the inside with people on the outside. I’ve done a lot of organizing and protesting and educating and typical legislative campaign work, but when you connect individual people, human to human, that feels like it’s a way of bringing people face-to-face with the realities of prison life and connecting it to a real human being.
A Calling to Prison Ministry and Antiracism Work
My name is Judy Meikle, I live in New Haven CT, and I attend Wilton Quaker Meeting.
My prison ministry started with a very clear message to go behind prison walls. I was aware of the prison work that was happening in New York Yearly Meeting and I heard this term, “From the plantation to the penitentiary” and I was curious about that and I just got a very clear message that you’re not gonna understand what that means unless you go behind prison walls. So I got myself cleared as a volunteer and went and joined the prison worship group inside Sing Sing. And I just very clearly remember the first time I sat in the circle of men who were worshiping in Sing Sing, and that was the first time I became intensely aware of my whiteness.
Race and the Prison System
The connection between systemic racism and the prison system — the policies and practices that drive Black and Brown people disproportionally into the prison system — have been written about much better than I can talk about but that very first time that I sat in a circle inside a prison and had that very visceral feeling of my whiteness but also the predominance of Black and Brown people in the circle, and felt like I had to go and investigate the underlying causes of that. It was a— there were so many things that I had to have my eyes open to.
Recognizing White Saviorism Within a Calling
I remember a time when I was working with young people out in the community and I was invited into Sing Sing prison, and I was invited in to do that because I had some experience of doing that out in the community. And around the same time there was a young person who was murdered in a city not far from here and I had an urgent need to offer this anti-violence program in that community, but I wasn’t invited in to do that and I didn’t ask the community what there own resources were; I didn’t ask the community what their needs were. It was very much a case of “let me thorough, I’m a Quaker and I have this resource I can offer you,” and looking back on it with the trainings that I have now and the insights that I have now, I recognize it as white savorism.
Stumbling Toward Antiracism
I’d like to name that it’s a struggle for me on an ongoing basis to wrestle with my own internalized racism and when I hear myself talking like I have today about what my joinery has been like, I hear myself falling into the trap of exceptionalism, like somehow I’m the good antiracist – I’m not. I stumble all the time, I make mistakes. So I just want to name that and know that I am on this journey making mistakes because I want to do better, and I hope that with the guidance of Spirit others will join. There are many people in the Religious Society of Friends that are already on board with this work, and it’s just my hope that others will join.
- Can you think of a time when something you were called to do turned out to be misinformed or misguided? If so, what was that realization like?
- How do you see your community “stumbling” towards being antiracist or anti-oppressive?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
4 thoughts on “A Calling to Prison Ministry and Antiracism Work”
Hi Judy, your video is a learning experience; your courage, honesty, and introspection make this an exceptional message to anyone interested in learning how to be an antiracist. Thank you and the unspoken millions like you, with cross-racial relationships working to overcome our white supremacist conditioning.
Thank you Judy, for your honesty and your transparency around the work you are doing. And thank you for introducing me to Bruce and now Joseph.
Interesting how going behind bars to such a contained and constrained world can open our world. Thanks for this, Judy and Rebecca
How you recognize the racism within yourself, and your “white saviorism” makes me think about these same issues within me, within all of us. I do think there is a difference between seeing someone who’s skin is a different color than one own and actually being a racist. Many if not most people see others that are different from ourselves and take note of those differences. Sometimes it can strike emotions that stem from previous negative experiences, but those can quickly be dismissed as lingering traumas. I am a white woman, and as a child, I was bullied many times by kids of color…slapped, harassed, ridiculed, and robbed. That formed impressions within myself that made me leery for a time.
Later in life, I worked for many years helping underserved urban teenagers and I felt good about what I was doing. I learned a lot. But that doesn’t mean that my ingrained memories and feelings simply stopped. I just put them aside and went on with helping others because It was the right thing to do and I had the power to do so. Still, I am imperfect, as are we all. The main thing is to keep trying and not feel guilty by association to others who have committed so many injustices and wrongs…most notably in today’s world.
God loves us all equally, and the work you are doing is divine above all else, no matter the confliction you feel. Thank you for your commitment to easing the pain of others. It’s one of the few things we can do to change the world and sooth the soul.
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