Dec 7 2012

Who is a theologian?

This is a question I never cared to ponder until seminary. I have a business background as well as an ecclesial one but defining a theologian was never a concern … until now. Who constitutes the classification of theologian? Before coming to Candler, I may have answered that question with a list of erudite scholars, many of whom are no longer living.

A theologian is someone who dedicates her or his life to the scholastic vocation of seeking after knowledge of God and the things of God….

For some, that may have been a sufficient answer but life has taught me differently. While I have learned a great deal from the noted theologians of the past, I have learned, perhaps most deeply, from the theologians who would never classify themselves as such. Some of the most impactful learning experiences I have had over the course of my time in seminary have not been from books but from lived experiences.

Voices of HopeA few weeks ago, the Voices of Hope Gospel Choir of the Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women came to sing during chapel service. The ways the songs soothed my soul and the way the melody wrapped me in comfort is something words cannot adequately convey. Excuse my colloquialism but you just had to be there. One song in particular struck me in a way no scholarly reading ever has. The choir full of women who were incarcerated for crime sang the words I AM FORGIVEN, I AM A CHILD OF GOD. It was as if all of the theological discourse in my being came to an abrupt halt to listen again to these words of truth. What does it mean to be forgiven? To belong to God? To be children of grace? By singing these words, these women became for me at that moment, theologians, encouraging me to learn something new and think about God in new and fresh ways.

I am teaching a class this semester at the same prison the women in the choir are from. On the first day, I began class by saying – “whether you know it or not, you are all theologians.” I wanted to affirm the voices of these women relegated to the outskirts of society. I wanted to do for these women what my theological education has done for me – affirm the voice within. God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit speaks to me, in me and through me…and to these women as well. I have a voice, I have something to say and my words matter. So do theirs. So does yours.

The pursuit of theological education is a blessed one. It will often times lead you to the wonders of great writings and texts and if you are patient enough, it will lead you to the lives of people whose experiences will stay with you for a lifetime. These people will never call themselves theologians but you and I know better.

- Rachelle Brown

Rachelle is a second year MDiv student from Cincinnati, OH and a Candler Student Ambassador.

You can see an earlier blog about the Voices of Hope here.


Nov 25 2009

Freedom and Salvation

PrisonCD.0827

The Voices of Hope choir; photo used by permission of Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

The Service:

Metro State 1

Candler Professor of Church Music and Worship James Abbington accompanies the choir

The chapel service this past Tuesday was packed. I had to climb through three sections to find a seat. The Voices of Hope women’s gospel choir was singing, and I knew they would draw a crowd. I had a lot of office work to do, but they are a choir that you do not miss. I’ve heard them sing three times now and I’ve been blown away and reduced to tears every time. I have had to collect myself in my pew when they’re done, so I’m not overwhelmed after the service. The power is palpable, carrying out of the chapel, feet tapping, voices humming and singing, smiles everywhere. I left the service alone, back to the office; the choir left escorted by armed guards back to prison.

The Choir:

You see, the Voices of Hope is part of the gospel choir ministry of Rev. Susan Bishop, chaplain at the Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. Metro State is a notoriously violent maximum security prison; in 2004, Diane Sawyer from ABC News spent a day and night in the prison as part of an exposé on the culture and violence in women’s prisons. Rev. Bishop, an ordained Baptist pastor and Candler graduate (’75) formed the choir as part of her ministry in 1992. She is a “godmother and mentor” to many of the women at Metro State. The traveling choir numbered 18; the in-house choir counts roughly 35 members among its ranks.

The Prison:Candler has a  long-standing relationship with Metro State. The prison serves as one of the Contextual Education sites in which Master of Divinity students serve during their first year at Candler. First-year students serve in ministry setting outside of church settings—settings like hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters. Students primarily counsel inmates one on one, assisting with worship, facilitate groups, and help with bible study. One Candler student remarked that “Chaplain Bishop is one of the most inspirational, loving, caring, and outstanding ministers you will likely ever meet.”

The Ministry:

Don and Emily Saliers

Don and Emily Saliers

While the choir members repeatedly thanked those of us in the congregation for allowing them to sing, we were all very clearly the ones who had been blessed. The choir is an embodiment of the Christian notions of salvation, grace and redemption. Bishop said, “God has work for us to do, no matter who you are, no matter where you are.” It seems doubtful that many of the women, upon being incarcerated, could imagine being used by God for such acts of beauty and hope. And yet that is exactly what the choir is—a living message of hope.

The Voice of Hope also have a new CD out—a first for a Georgia prison choir. Emily Saliers (above right, with her dad) of the Grammy Award duo The Indigo Girls, helped finance the CD project and has sung with the choir on a regular basis for the past several years. Saliers has deep Emory connections. She graduated from Emory College with a BA in English in 1985 and her father, Don, taught worship and theology at Candler until 2007. They co-authored A Song to Sing, a Life to Live in 2004, about the intersecting strands of music and theology in their lives. Bishop said the recording has given the participants a sense of accomplishment and offered them an opportunity to give back to the community. Proceeds from the sale of the CD go toward a program that brings children to visit their mothers at the prison.

To buy the CD, go to: http://www.cccgeorgia.org/cd/index.html


Check out the Voices of Hope singing “Not Forgotten” from earlier this summer in Atlanta.