On a propitiously spectacular early-summer Sunday, maybe fifty of us, maybe a hundred, most of us White, most of us over sixty, stood at six-foot intervals on either side of Massachusetts Avenue. We waved Black Lives Matter signs, other signs. Passersby waved and honked. It was lovely and peaceful and Spirit-filled. And Pentecost.
I was filled by that same fiery moment that Pentecost commemorates, seven Sundays after Easter when, according to Acts 2, the Apostles were gathered in one place when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.
(As I transcribe this Bible passage, I can see Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr., on a Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia. Dressed in his white vestments he stands at the New Canaan International Church’s pulpit. “Help me, Holy Ghost!” I hear him beseech.)
Had the stand-out’s organizers picked this particular, foundational Sunday in the Christian calendar to stage that demonstration? Probably not. Holding my sign, holding George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury in the Light, this Quaker felt that Sunday morning’s synchronicity; its power. I recognized Spirit in the sign-bearing people lining Mass Ave and in the proclaiming car horns.
In Peter’s interpretation of that fiery, language-barrier-crossing moment, I hear the same paradigm-shifting message of early Friends: that Spirit is here, now, transformative, available to all, accessible to all. Christ is come to teach his people himself. That Pentecost morning I sensed I was hearing that prophetic voice, too, in the nationwide conversation on policing and reapportioning resources towards affordable housing and mental health services.
More about that synchronicity: Peter, the voice of the dispossessed and the marginalized, explains why the bewildered crowd can suddenly speak of the great things God has done—even though they spoke different tongues. The former fisherman reminds the gathering that this startling, inclusive moment had been prophesized; he quotes from Joel 2: 28: Therefore the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and slave-girls.
Even upon slaves. While I, hearing that prophetic voice in 2020, cherish Joel and Peter’s promise of how widespread God will pour out his spirit, I have a fiery reaction to that dismissive even. It reminds of two challenging interactions I’d had with correctional officers at MCI Cedar Junction. The first happened as a CO escorted me to his workplace’s solitary confinement unit, the Department Disciplinary Unit. (Our prison system certainly loves euphemisms!) On our quarter-mile walk from the Visitors Center to the DDU, past silent cell blocks and empty, weedy, exercise cages, he’d quizzed me as to why I there. I mumbled something about being a Quaker and prison ministry. My actual answer would have taken much longer than our walk: I would have had to tell him about my leading to find Owen and Lynda, about Owen’s trying to keep Black men out of jail, about how my Quaker meeting had gotten involved with returning citizens, offering a weekly meal and sharing circle for ex-offenders; how I’d written to several prisoners over the years but, supported and guided by those weekly circles, had finally found the courage to actually step foot inside one—and how I was therefore there to visit one of my pen-pals.
Rapid-fire stringing together keywords from Isaiah and Matthew, the guard offered me a Biblical word salad: proclaim-liberty-to-captives-and-release-to-those-in-prison-when-in-prison-you-visited-me-as-you-did-for-the-least of-these, ending by raising his voice as if to ask a question; as if to make sure he’d gotten it right.
Startled to hear a couple of my favorite biblical passages spoken by a CO and, as always when inside a prison, struggling to stay grounded and centered, initially I’d been touched he’d understood me. But later I realized his references had nothing to do with me or my prison ministry as much as what he was telling me about his job: Get it? I think he’d actually said. Even the Bible says prisoners are a special category—they’re the lowest of the low. They’re the least of these. They’re scum. You come here once a month. That’s nice and all. But I have to deal with these low-lifes 24/7. It’s my job. This is how I feed my family.
Even upon slave girls. On a subsequent trip to Walpole, a female CO escorted me to the DDU. Short, compact, buxom, White, she’d set a brisk pace for our walk. I quickly found out why. Those tomb-like units suddenly came to life. Catcalls, hoots, insinuating comments, it seemed like every man, unseen but easily heard through the open windows, had something to say. “I know you know who this voice is,” one man called, his voice husky and seductive. As if she had every reason to recognize his voice. As if she and he had a relationship; something special going on. And I realized that, just like the world outside these prison walls, an attractive woman can be treated like property. As if even less than least.