-Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
Rev. Susan Bishop quotes this line with conviction and a healthy dose of compassion. It is obvious she believes this statement to be true.
Bishop, who serves as chaplain at the Metro State Women's Prison, has worked in prison ministry for most of her ministerial career. She spoke about her experiences and led a vocal ensemble from the prison at the annual Fall Conference chapel service on Oct. 9. The conference featured the 29th annual Charles V. Gerkin Pastoral Care Symposium, "Caring in a Violent World." The event was coordinated by the Office of Church Ministries Education at Candler.
"Caring in a Violent World means, of course, we provide care and comfort to those that are victims of violence," Bishop said in her sermon. "It also means we provide care to those that have been perpetrators of violence and those who find themselves incarcerated for other nonviolent crimes as well.
"It also means working towards systemic corrections to a culture that has become too familiar and too accustomed to violence. It means not accepting language from any quarter that condones or attempts to normalize the abuse or mistreatment of women. It means monitoring what our children do and see so that we prevent seeds of violence from being sown."
The 300-plus attendees at chapel service received Bishop and the choir enthusiastically, clapping along, standing as they felt moved, and giving lengthy ovations. Called Voices of Hope, the ensemble is a select group of singers chosen from the choir at the prison. The choir sings at worship serves at the prison every Sunday, and Voices of Hope gives three or four public performances every year.
"The energy was palpable," said Barbara Day Miller, Candler's Assistant Dean of Worship. "You could feel that."
Miller said many attendees were struck how the lyrics of some songs took on a new and deeper meaning when sung by an incarcerated choir. "It was one of those moments that was fairly transcendent," she said. "It was more than we expected."
Rev. E. Elizabeth Luton, director of the Office of Church Ministries Education, said the event allowed people, especially the many Candler alumni who returned to campus for the event, to see hope in their work in pastoral care. "There was such a sense of reconciliation," she said.
Part of that reconciliation comes in acknowledging that everyone ï¿½ even those who are incarcerated ï¿½ have gifts to offer, a sentiment Bishop readily endorses. "One of the ways I have tried to provide care for those in my spiritual charge is to say to them, 'Your life is not over because you have come this way. You still are loved by God and God has work for you to do, even behind these prison walls. You have gifts to offer.'"
"We are here to say that healing takes place in the midst of sharing your gifts with others," Bishop continued. "When we sing, it is our prayer that we help to stir the gifts within you. It is our prayer that you will be encouraged and you will experience a transcended moment and that you will feel God's love and God's care."