Nov. 7, 2011
World-renowned theologian Jürgen Moltmann traveled to a metro Atlanta jailhouse last week to spend time with an unlikely group of kindred spirits -- nine women prisoners who were being newly minted as theologians by Candler School of Theology faculty, alumni, and students.
“The way outside can be dangerous, but in prison it is the inside that must be explored,” Moltmann said to graduates of the Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., Oct. 28.
Moltmann, in Atlanta as the keynote speaker at Candler’s Reformation Day at Emory event, added the prison trip to his agenda for two reasons: he could identify with the students because he first encountered the existential power of theology while a British prisoner of war during World War II. “For three years I was lost in sadness and desperation, and Christ found me,” he told the graduates.
But mainly it was one CTS student who found Moltmann and drew him into a correspondence that culminated in his visit. About a year ago, after reading Moltmann’s work and learning the story of his imprisonment, the student wrote to him and the two have communicated regularly by letter ever since. During graduation, they met for the first time and were given the opportunity to speak together.
“I feel what she feels. I have been there, and I know the fear. But like her, I also know the liberating power of theology,” said Moltmann.
The CTS program for women in prison is the long-held dream of Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Candler, and Candler alumna Rev. Susan Bishop, chaplain at Arrendale Prison. They conceived the “seminary behind walls” idea in 1998, and after a decade of challenging planning and permissions, they graduated the first class of 13 in 2010 at Metro State Prison. The nine women who graduated last week comprised the second class; 10 additional women are currently in the middle of the third class, and 22 have been accepted for the fourth class.
Now a joint effort of the Arrendale chaplain’s office and the Atlanta Theological Association, a consortium of seminaries of which Candler is a member, the program offers courses in biblical studies, theology, ethics, and electives such as “Prophetic Preaching” and “Theology and Film.” The goal is to help women realize their potential as theologians and lay leaders in the church, both at Arrendale and when they return to their communities. Emphasizing critical thinking skills, the CTS program helps students see their own experiences within broader theological and social contexts.
Students and faculty from Candler and the other participating seminaries, along with students from Emory’s doctoral program in religion, design and teach the courses. Michelle Ledder, who received her MDiv from Candler in 2010, gives credit for her own success to her CTS students. “I owe my admission to the Emory Ph.D. program to these women. They showed me the power of hope,” she said.
Hope was an important theme in the remarks of two graduating inmates. One shared that in her lifetime she’s spent more time in prison than out. “I now know there is salvation, peace, and forgiveness from the Creator. I have learned that we are all worthy of redemption, whatever our background,” she said.
The other graduate offered words of both hope and praise. “I discovered that I have the ability to accomplish something. And I discovered my hunger for theology. Theology has taught me to place my hope in God, who is always with me. Prison gates cannot keep God out.”