By Jeff Brumley
It’s been hard for some to fathom how a condemned prisoner earned a certificate in theology while on Georgia’s death row.
Even one of those who taught Kelly Gissendaner says it’s amazing that she could write papers and participate in discussions, given all the challenges prison — and an impending execution — can bring.
“Trying to reconcile the enormity of the death sentence with the fact we are having a conversation on theology and pastoral care and reading books we read in seminary — it’s a lot to wrap your head around,” said Marion Hughes, a former student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
Hughes was a student instructor in the theology certificate program run by McAfee and other Atlanta seminaries at the Metro State Prison for Women. That’s how she met Gissendaner in 2010.
Hughes, who taught pastoral care courses in the prison, described Gissendaner as a talented student who overcame the frustration of around-the-clock isolation in part through the theology program.
“I know she grabbed ahold of the redemptive nature of the Cross and I know that was probably a lifeline for her,” she said.
Gissendaner and the other inmates also gave back, Hughes said. “It will always be a part of the fiber of who I am.”
Besides Hughes, Gissendaner’s involvement has inspired students and faculty at the seminaries that participate in the theology certificate program, one McAfee professor said.
They in turn were motivated to act on Gissendaner’s behalf as her scheduled March 2 death by lethal injection neared. While the execution was postponed due to questions about the drugs to be used, the activism is continuing.
“There is a personal connection there which has raised awareness and a level of urgency around the issue,” said David Garber, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and the faculty advisor for the Certificate in Theological Studies for women now at the Arrendale State Prison.
“Many students have written eloquent papers on capital punishment and on restorative justice” during the run-up and aftermath to Gissendale’s scheduled execution.
“It has heightened awareness of the [certificate] program,” he added. “The McAfee culture is really aware of what we are doing through the association.”
‘Tending to the image of God’
Gissendaner was condemned in 1997 for the killing of her husband, who was murdered by the woman’s boyfriend.
Reaching out to her and other inmates is both ministry and academics, according to Garber.
“I see it as a part of Christ’s calling to visit those who are in prison,” he said. “I don’t see it as an opportunity to proselytize.”
It is about tending to the image of God in the inmates who often lack access to those who care about their wellbeing, he said.
It’s also about helping them either cope with a life behind bars or, if ever released, callings to ministry.
The program is jointly operated by Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary, McAfee and the Interdenominational Theological Center, all working under the auspices of the Atlanta Theological Association.
The three schools provide about 15 student teachers per year, with McAfee offering two to seven depending on need and interest, Garber said.
Launched in 2009 with funding from the association, the program is now operating on a four-year grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, Garber said.
The certificate program is a one-year course of study broken into 12-week quarters. Inmates spend the first quarter in a biblical foundations course, the second quarter studying theological foundations, and the remaining quarters pursuing electives.
Those who complete the courses earn a certificate, not a degree, Garber said.
“It’s not an accredited program,” he said. “It’s sponsored by ATA — we don’t have authority to give degrees.”
‘A sense of accomplishment’
The benefits of the program depend on the individual. Some of those who have been released go on to seminary.
“This program has inspired them to that or inspired them to think how they would like to pursue ministry,” Garber said.
There is also an advanced certificate for those who want to pursue further studies.
“The certificate for most symbolizes a sense of accomplishment,” Garber said.
He added that the program is not restricted to Protestants or even Christians.
“We have Buddhist students, various Catholic and Protestants, mainline and evangelical, some atheists and agnostics and others,” he said. “We are not there to proselytize or evangelize in any sense.”
Their motivations for participation are as varied as those of the Christian students, he said.
“For some of them it’s a spiritual journey for some of them it is an educational journey. For some it may be a journey of personal enrichment.”
The student teachers also are attracted to the program for a variety of reasons.
A lot are studying counseling and are interested in ministry to those who are incarcerated. Some feel called to visit those who are in prison. Those with academic aspirations see the program as a way to gain teaching experience while expressing their faith, Garber said.
A witness to struggles
Whatever their motivation, every student teacher has told Garber they cherished the experience.
“They learn what mass incarceration is like and they learn about the struggles the women face in terms of isolation or access to resources, or in terms of coming to terms with what they have done [to be sent to prison],” Garber said.
Gissendaner’s case has helped the program’s student teachers and many at their seminaries do some soul searching, too.
Her scheduled March 2 execution date spawned a corps of activists among the student teachers, their friends and professors. They blanketed media outlets with emails and waged a social media blitz to pressure the governor and other state officials to cancel the execution.
‘A lens of suffering’
Jordan Yeager is one of those activists. Before teaching in the certificate program, and before Gissendaner, the capital punishment wasn’t really on her radar.
“It’s helped me get out of my bubble,” said Yeager, who has taught other women at the prison but not met the condemned prisoner. “It reflects the gospel in unexpected ways.”
Yeager is in her second year at McAfee, where she’s studying Christian social ethics. Taking that topic into Arrandale transformed Yeager’s understanding of issues like abortion, stem cell research and access to health care.
“These women see all these issues through a lens of suffering,” Yeager said.
Gissendaner’s situation has inspired her and other student instructors from the three area divinity schools to embrace activism for her and others on death row. Yeager has now taken to posting “death watch” messages on Facebook, alerting friends to other impending executions around the nation.
“This has brought the [seminary] communities, and Atlanta, together,” she said.
“Where there’s pain, you go and see what you can do.”
The prison teaching experience and working for the commutation of Gissendaner’s death sentence may have added a new dimension to Yeager’s career plans.
“I want to do health care ethics and work for a hospital,” she said. “But this prison thing won’t leave me alone.”