Finding God in Prison
By Sam Hodges and Nick Liao
If a society’s approach to punishment reflects its understanding of God, the $68 billion U.S. prison system is a crucible for theology
On a clear, brisk Sunday morning in January 2009, Ken Carder and his students arrived by appointment, in separate cars, at the Bureau of Prisons Federal Correctional Institution north of Durham, N.C. The class members, who had met only once before, had not formed a bond. Most of the students had never been inside a jail or prison. Even Carder, who had been making prison visits for decades, felt anxious.
They entered the prison’s medical center, impressed by its cleanliness and the courteous welcome from staff. But they still had to fill out paperwork, go through a metal detector, and have hands stamped to pass through an ultraviolet light-sensitive security device used farther inside.
They moved on, with escorts, noticing observation cameras and an increase in uniformed guards. Their progress toward a meeting with inmates was punctuated with metal doors slamming shut behind them.
It was the cliché of prison movies, and unnervingly real.
“We were entering a very different world than the halls of Duke Divinity School,” says Carder, Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. professor of the practice of Christian ministry and a retired United Methodist bishop.
He wouldn’t have had it any other way for the 15 students enrolled in “Restorative Justice, Prison Ministry, and the Church.”
Though Carder and other Divinity School professors had made prison ministry a part of various courses — as well as a focus of independent studies — one dedicated to the subject was new for Duke. Carder intended to balance the theoretical with the practical at every turn.
The class met in Langford 042, but also went three times to the federal prison. Students had readings and lectures on theology and restorative justice, and also grounded themselves in facts about incarceration in the United States. Guest speakers included prison chaplains, crime victims, reform advocates, and former inmates.
“It’s easy to take a text and embrace words and feel like you have mastered knowledge about an issue,” says Amey Victoria Adkins, who took the course her final semester. “It’s totally different to take those texts and reflect on them with the people the texts are talking about.”
The course’s scriptural pulse was Matthew 25, where Jesus lays out what his followers should do for the “least of these,” including visiting them in prison.
“As Bishop Carder says, ‘Jesus’ list is not multiple choice,’” says Heather Rodrigues, who also took the course.
But Carder insists that visiting jails and prisons is as much about blessings received as services rendered.
“I thought I was going to take God to the prison, but I discovered very quickly that God had been in the prison all along, wondering how long it was going to take me to arrive,” he says.
The mustard seed for the course was planted in 1968, when Carder was a young pastor in eastern Tennessee. At a UMC annual conference, he heard U.S. District Judge Frank Wilson speak of maintaining contact with everyone he sent to prison, and of believing clergy should be as familiar with the insides of local jails and prisons as they were the insides of local hospitals.
Carder had never been behind bars, but found his way to the Sullivan County, Tenn., jail, offering counsel. He was paired with a young man charged with armed robbery who asked, “How do I get God in my life?”
Carder recalls recovering enough from the blunt question to ask why the man felt he needed God. He opened up about all the wrong he’d done, the people he’d hurt; but other details — including time spent in foster homes — made clear that his trouble-making had a troubled context.
“My response to him,” says Carder, “was ‘It’s obvious that God is already in your life.’”
Carder soon began to change too, recognizing jails and prisons as a crucible for faith, shaping not only the incarcerated but those who visit or work among them.
“There are dimensions of God — the God of Exodus and God of Jesus — that we cannot know the depths of unless we’re willing to enter into prisons and other hurting places,” he said.
Through a long career as pastor and bishop, Carder would continue visiting jails and prisons, and he has stayed in close contact for more than two decades with an inmate convicted of murder. Carder also became an outspoken advocate for prison reform, including abolishing the death penalty.
When he joined the Duke Divinity faculty in 2004, he saw the potential for a specific course around prison ministry and restorative justice. He invited to campus Harmon Wray, a prison reform advocate who taught such a course for Vanderbilt University Divinity School with students and inmates studying together at a Tennessee prison.
Wray was scheduled to come to Duke in September 2007 for a second consulting visit, but he died of a brain hemorrhage in August. “I felt a special responsibility to organize and offer the course, partly as a means of continuing Harmon’s legacy,” says Carder.
He drafted a syllabus and formally proposed the course, which was approved by the curriculum committee and first offered during the spring 2009 semester.
A few months before the course started, Carder attended worship in Goodson Chapel, having no idea that he would hear colleague Douglas Campbell give a sermon challenging Christians to visit prisons and push for prison reform. Campbell, associate professor of New Testament, drew on the experience that he and his wife, Rachel, had while visiting a young family friend in prison.
Carder approached Campbell and asked him to help with the class. He agreed immediately, and they decided he would give two lectures. But Campbell would attend nearly every session, fully participating in discussions.
“A sheer gift,” Carder says. “It was not part of his teaching load, but he did it out of his own passion and commitment.”
Another crucial collaborator would be Cari Willis, who became Carder’s teaching assistant. She had done her field training at the prison as a pastoral care provider on the hospice ward, and later reflected on the searing experience in an independent study with Carder. She is currently at work on a book-length memoir about that ministry that she hopes to publish.
Willis, who brought a corporate management background and extensive contacts at the prison, oversaw the complicated logistics of having the class meet there, and also recruited outside speakers.
“It just seemed like a match for me to help Bishop Carder,” she says. “He knows this is where my heart is.”
In early lectures and readings, Carder’s course built a foundation, surveying the early history of corrections in the United States, the church’s role in shaping it, and how in recent decades mandatory sentencing has swelled prison populations.
As a student, Nathan Kilbourne found himself coming to terms with the United States as the world leader in incarceration. The United States has more than 2.3 million inmates in federal and state prisons and in local jails. These prisoners account for 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its reported inmates.
African Americans and other ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented, and the number of women in prison has spiked, increasing the percentage of nonviolent offenders behind bars. All told, the United States spends about $68 billion a year on corrections.
“It was very much an eye-opener,” says Kilbourne, now an associate UMC pastor in Little Rock, Ark., of the background part of the course.
For help with grounding the students theologically, Carder relied on lectures by Campbell, a Pauline scholar who argues that a society’s approach to punishment reflects its understanding of God. Campbell has devoted much of his writing to challenging the justification theory of salvation as traditionally drawn from Paul’s letters.
“He feels that reading Paul forensically is an incorrect reading, that you can only understand Paul through the lens of grace,” Carder says.
Campbell also argues — with as much passion as Carder — that restorative justice must be the Christian way.
“At the end of the day, we believe in the system of reconciliation we’ve got from God, or we don’t,” he says. “And if we believe in it, we should be applying it.”
While restorative justice is about making things whole for offenders and victims — rather than simply exacting punishment — putting the idea into practice is not so obvious.
Carder required four papers of his students, one of them a description and critique of a restorative justice model. He devoted three class sessions to exploring such models, and his required reading included James Samuel Logan’s Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment.
As it happened, the professor in the office next to Carder’s — Tammy Williams — was using the same book in a Black Church Studies course. They co-sponsored a panel discussion, open to the public and widely attended by members of their classes. It featured North Carolinians active in restorative justice and able to address with authority the real-life possibilities of Logan’s ideas.
As stimulating as all this was, students say, the trips to the prison were what distinguished the course.
“We were able to meet a diversity of people who are in prison,” Adkins says. “We were able to tour the different prison areas. We were able to speak to inmates and staff. It gave legs to all that we were reading.”
Willis actually worried that the visits would give students a romantic picture of prison life, since prison officials hand-picked inmates to meet with them. Though well within the prison complex, the gatherings occurred in a comfortable multi-purpose room, not in crowded living quarters.
But the first visit included a tour of the medical complex’s psychiatric ward, where conditions were Spartan, and despair palpable.
“I will never forget when we were taken outside to where these prisoners were allowed to have their hour of exercise and sunshine a day,” says Christa Mazzone Palmberg D’09. “It looked like the adult version of a dog kennel. Each cage had nothing in it.”
The lengthy discussion sessions with inmates ranged from the free-wheeling to a consideration of Good Punishment? Prison staff arranged for a group of crime victims to come to the prison and meet with inmates and students. (The victims had not been offended by any of the inmates at the prison.) Willis feels that the discussion lacked the punch it could have had, but one theme was clear to her over the sessions.
“They don’t want to be defined by their crime,” she says. “At Duke, we talk a lot about imago dei — [the idea] that in each person there’s a spark of God, and that what we need to do is go find that, and value the unique treasure that each person is, because God made them that way. The guys definitely wanted us to see that they do have worth, and that just because they are where they are doesn’t mean they should be thrown away.”
Differences emerged between the students and prison chaplains. Some chaplains objected when students used the inmates’ first names, citing the Bureau of Prisons’ practice of using last names. A certain, Carder-encouraged value — seminarians were there to learn from the inmates — also troubled some chaplains.
“We were told early on that we were being gullible when we called the inmates our teachers,” Heather Rodrigues says. “But they were our teachers — even those whose stories were stretched or who worked to manipulate our sympathy. They, too, taught us, for prison ministry is not without its pitfalls.”
Carder acknowledges that the chaplains and the students were coming to discussions with different sets of lenses, but believes that had changed by the last visit. He recalls that one of the chaplains eventually concluded, “The students need an immersion in the prison, and I think I need an immersion in divinity school.”
Carder’s course didn’t end in the classroom or the prison. The final gathering was a worship service in an intimate space within Duke Chapel, with a specially written liturgy and reflection about what they’d all learned. There were prayers for everyone affected by the corrections system, and promises exchanged about staying engaged by visiting jails and prisons, and advocating for reform.
Though they spent a semester studying a troubling topic, Carder’s students seem to compete for superlatives to describe the experience. Campbell is right there with them.
“The course was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life,” he says.
Meanwhile, Carder looks forward to having another group of Duke Divinity students join him in finding God in prison. He plans to teach the course again, next spring semester.
(Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2009 issue of Divinity magazine, the publication of Duke Divinity School. Nick Liao, a 2009 master of divinity graduate and participant in Professor Carder’s course, wrote a similar story for the Divinity School course “Journalism as Christian Practice.” At the time of publication, he lived in Chicago, where he worked with InterVarsity Press. Sam Hodges covers religion for The Dallas Morning News.)