Prison chaplain Susan Bishop `75T brings a joyful noise to the Metropolitan Correctional Institute for Women

By Allison O. Adams

At six o'clock on a Wednesday evening, behind five rows of concertina wire at the Metropolitan Correctional Institution for Women, twenty-one voices are making a joyful noise. In the prison's Chapel of Hope, a spacious, cheery room with plenty of windows and potted plants, the singers blend four-part harmony on a gospel tune. Clad in loose-fitting, khaki prison uniforms with "STATE PRISONER" stamped across the backs, they stand and sway, dance, clap, raise their hands, or just tap a foot to the upbeat music:
Lift up your voice to the sky;
All of God's children testify.
Chaplain Susan Bishop directs the rehearsal, calling out instructions on pitch and key modulation. Abruptly, a blue-uniformed officer walks in and halts the music. An emergency count is underway; everyone must return to their buildings for lockdown. Folders are tossed on chairs, Bishop delivers a quick benediction, and the inmates hurry out. When the room is empty, Bishop sighs and drops onto the piano bench. "Flexibility and patience," she says. "That's what this job requires more than anything else."

A 1975 alumna of the Candler School of Theology and a Southern Baptist minister, Bishop has worked for the Georgia Department of Corrections since 1984 and has served as the senior chaplain for the Metropolitan Correctional Institution (known as Metro) in southeast Atlanta since 1987. In addition to her master of divinity degree from Candler, Bishop, a native of Anderson, South Carolina, has a bachelor of music education degree from Columbia College in South Carolina and a master of music education degree from Georgia State University.

Known among inmates as Chap, Bishop has always led choirs in the prisons where she has worked, and her ensembles have performed frequently in churches and schools and once at the Southern Baptist Convention. "The prison is a great context for combining music, theology, counseling, and worship," she says. "You don't ordinarily think of music education in a correctional setting, but it encourages the inmates to grow spiritually as well as musically. The Lord brings some incredibly talented people through here. Part of the fun is to push ordinary voices to bring out their best and to combine that with the anointing. But I also teach them basic music theory--what's a whole note, what's a quarter note. So if they get out and decide to sing in a church choir or musical group, they'll take a skill with them they may not have had before."

Bishop's dual calling to music and the church was clear early in life. At age eight she began taking piano lessons from the wife of the minister of her family's small Southern Baptist church, where she sang in the choir. "In my early preteen religious experience, I thought I'd be a missionary or something like that," she says. "Then when I was teaching music in schools, I started looking to seminary out of a feeling that this wasn't quite it. I went to seminary because I was spiritually restless."

After one quarter, however, Bishop was ready to drop out. The paucity of women on the Candler faculty, the small number of female students in the program, and her denomination's reluctance to ordain women frustrated her. Then she attended a conference for women seminarians and clergy. "I had never seen an ordained clergywoman from any denomination," she says. "And I thought, Oh--I can do this. I can be a chaplain."

Bishop's first chaplaincy was a one-year appointment sponsored by a group of churches at a female offenders' transitional center. Following several years of service in a state mental health facility, she was drawn back to the prisons by the music. "In the hospital setting, I ran a music therapy program," she says. "But in the correctional setting, I have the satisfaction of both using music to engage and express [inmates'] emotions and having a really high performance group. The music is my heart. It brings me the most joy."

Bishop's staff includes a full-time African Methodist Episcopal chaplain, a full-time Islamic chaplain, and a Catholic nun who works part-time. They offer individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, several worship programs daily, and projects with outside churches and community organizations. Approximately one-third of Metro's 690 inmates, who range in age from fifteen to more than seventy, are involved in a regular activity sponsored by the chaplaincy.

Accommodating a variety of religious backgrounds, the Metro choir's repertoire includes traditional hymns, an occasional classical piece, and both contemporary and traditional gospel. They sing every Sunday evening at the prison's ecumenical chapel services. Last year, a chorus of eleven singers performed at the Carter Center to honor the eighth anniversary of Prison Ministries with Women Inc., a support organization for female offenders and former inmates.

A chaplain's role in the prison community, Bishop says, is unique. "Whereas the officers must maintain a kind of professional distance, I think we can get closer to inmates," she says. "Part of the job is to present the love of God. How can you do that except to touch people where they're really vulnerable?"

Lacrisa Andrews, a choir member who has served five years of a sentence for drug possession and armed robbery and is up for parole in 1998, affirms this sense of trust and intimacy. "My closeness to God is through music," she says. "When I first met Chap, I knew she was somebody I wanted to know because of the music. She's become my godmother and my mentor. A lot of us hide behind our crimes, but with her, I don't have to wear a mask. She has a genuine, `I-love-you-anyway' attitude."

Bishop also works to foster trust and hope during weekly group therapy sessions. "In the middle of what can be a chaotic and frightening situation," she says, "my main goal is to provide sanctuary, a safe context in which the inmates can be themselves and say what they really feel, work out their problems, confront and love each other, and become sort of a surrogate family. If you do this time rather than the time doing you, then perhaps you'll wind up with a better self than when you came in here, and you can turn this experience into a blessing in your life."

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