On Saturday March 23, 117 people from 50 PYM Monthly Meeting communities convened for Spring Continuing Sessions near Reading PA. A summary of the day’s events follows. Approved Minutes from the afternoon’s 1:00 PM-4:00 PM Meeting for Business are posted on PYM’s website under Continuing Sessions.
OUTDOOR MEETING FOR WORSHIP
The chilly and brilliantly sunny day began with a meaningful, peaceful, 10 am to 12 noon worship activity outside of the Berks County Residential Center.
Young Adult Friends (YAF) were supported in their participation through grant funding from the D’Olier Foundation, which provided transportation and meals for all YAF participants. Older Friends and families traveled by car, and Middle School and Young Friends participated with their program leaders and parents nearby.
Friends arrived with their blankets, folding lawn chairs, bilingual signs calling for ‘No Cages No Wall,’ and mugs of hot coffee. After several opening songs, the group settled into worship, surrounded by blue sky and groves of trees just across the street from the Berks County Residential Center.
There was no sound for a time except the wind blowing steadily and a few birds announcing spring.
Worship was held bilingually, with seamless translation provided by Marian Dalke, (Radnor Meeting) who worships with YAFs at West Philadelphia Meeting. Migrant refugee families in detention at Berks are primarily from Central America, but there are European and Middle Eastern refugees as well.
Many have noted that imprisoning asylum seekers feels wrong in the first place, but Berks is known for its record of unusually poor conditions. It is the first immigrant residential center to have an employee, Daniel Sharkey, admit to rape and multiple instances of sexual assault (some of them witnessed by a seven year-old child). He has been convicted, but will likely serve less time in prison than the woman he abused will spend in detention.
Governor Wolf has found fault with the residential center, described by some as a modern recreation of WW II Japanese Detention centers.
Experts believe that mental health conditions among refugee families–who are already destabilized by trauma in their home countries–are worsened by detention. It is believed their lives would improve if they were living in normal communities, housed by the American host families who have volunteered to support them.
Planning for the day was sparked by work the YAF community did at last summer’s Annual Sessions. A range of migrant justice experts were invited to join the worship. These were: Juntos (a leadership development/advocacy organization that helps Latinx populations), the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia (which builds fellowship across diverse Faith, ethnicity and class communities), and the Free Migration Project (which provides legal and technical support to grassroots groups). They were present to inform the PYM community about ongoing refugee work at the rise of meeting, and identify advocacy steps Quaker families can take to support refugee release.
The 96 bed Berks County Residential Center was created in 2001. Local media report it is unusual for being one of just three such centers in the United States (the other two are in Texas).
Governor Wolf has previously attempted to revoke the center’s licence and has asked federal authorities to release all asylum seeking families while their immigration cases are processed, but activists believe more can be done to ensure closure of the facility.
At worship’s conclusion the group sang Bring on the Lucie, by John Lennon, and community leaders spoke. Together Friends shared action steps and the hope that detained families’ refugee status would no longer be criminalized. Those interested in contacting Governor Wolf and Lt. Governor Fetterman were provided with these numbers for Governor Wolf (717-787-2500) and Lt. Governor Fetterman (717-787-3300).
It was acknowledged that detention disproportionately affects people of color from Latin American and other countries in upheaval, and Friends may need to walk a long road before equity will be the norm.
Many Friends characterized it as a peaceful morning, notable for the feeling of love centered in worship, and the deeply felt need to create a fairer process for refugees.
BRIDGE CONTACTS MEET FOR LUNCH
During lunch at the Miller Art Center a group of newly identified Bridge Contacts talked about how they could work together to better inform and connect each other’s meetings with Quaker tools and ideas.
Convened by PYM staff member Wendy Kane, the group of bridge contacts enjoyed having some time together to discuss their roles within their meetings, and their relationships with PYM. They agreed that connecting via Zoom calls before Spring, Fall and Summer Sessions could help them better prepare their home meetings for Yearly Meeting in Session. Wendy noted that Zoom call programming could easily be launched.
Many also said that regular emails from Wendy would help them stay in touch with all that is happening within the Quaker community and PYM. Not everyone knew how to sign up for PYM’s weekly online news and events emails (sent each Thursday or Friday), so Wendy agreed to make sure they got on the list.
Though different from Interim Meeting Reps, Bridge Contacts have an important role in ensuring their monthly meetings have access to PYM resources and programming, understand key PYM initiatives, and are known by peer meetings for all the gifts they have to share with one another. 19 out of 103 meetings have identified bridge contacts; a meeting may add a bridge contact to the list by signing up.
CHILDREN AND WORSHIP AT READING MEETING
Children and youth participated in programs hosted at Reading Friends Meeting, while adults worshiped in the Reading Meeting room — an alternative to being outdoors in the elements at the Berks County Residential Center prayer vigil.
Two communities of Friends worshiping 7 miles apart at the same time felt quite moving. It focused our Friends community on on the possibilities inherit in any worship that is centered in trust and love. The message was; “we are here to live out an expansive notion of nonviolence, not with opposition to war, but with justice and safety for every single family. ”
Much thought and preparation went into the worship that defined the day. Once older Friends went on to Meeting for Business, youth programs went to work on a mural “dedicated to a vision of radical welcome for all people.”
At about 12:50 Friends transitioned to convene in Meeting for Business in the Miller Art Center’s theater. Friends were briefed on the new deadline (June 1st) for the One Quilt, One Yearly Meeting project and encouraged to pick up a quilt square if they had not already.
Melissa Rycroft, Clerk of Nominating, was present with joy to recommend the appointment of Chris Lucca as Clerk, commending him for his lengthy service to the community in the roles of Alternate Clerk and Acting Presiding Clerk.
A wide range of thoughts, perspectives, hopes, and reservations were shared throughout Meeting for Business. One Friend closed her remarks with this thought: “Truly coming under the weight of moving forward to become a more aware and inclusive body…(that is what we need to do)…Namaste, that is what this process needs to be about.”
Namaste is a Hindu phrase of greeting and leave taking that carries with it a complex set of meanings centered in recognizing the divine in one’s self as witnessing the divine in someone else.
At the end of the day, the Mural created by our Quaker youth was brought into the theater at the Miller Art Center and held up after the close of Meeting for Business. It’s message–“no cages no wall,” speaks to all of us.