Campus News

November 7, 2011

9 prisoners are newly minted theologians through Candler program

Theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann speaks with an inmate at Lee Arrendale State Prison.

"How can a one-year program change the life of a woman who has spent more time in prison than out?" This question, posed by an inmate at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga, was directed to an assembly there recently.

The occasion was the commencement of nine women prisoners from the Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) program, a joint effort of the Arrendale chaplain's office and the Atlanta Theological Association, a consortium of seminaries of which Emory's Candler School of Theology is a member.

The inmate's answer? Hope. "I now know there is hope," she said, "and there is salvation, peace and forgiveness from the Creator."

The CTS program had its earliest beginnings in 1998, the year that Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics at Candler, met prison chaplain and Candler alumna Rev. Susan Bishop. They soon discovered their mutual interest in developing a kind of "seminary behind the walls." The first class of 13, at Metro State Prison, graduated in 2010. The nine women who graduated last month 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. 

In addition to courses in biblical studies, theology and ethics, electives such as "Prophetic Preaching" and "Theology and Film" have been taught. The goal of CTS 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.   

The program has met its goals. When asked about the effects of CTS on students, Bishop lit up. The program "gets them back on track academically," she said. In addition, "a number of behavior problems have simply vanished [because CTS] restores their self-respect and confidence in their own intellectual abilities. It helps them see themselves differently."

Indeed it does. "I have learned that we are all worthy of redemption, whatever our background," said one inmate as she stood in the pulpit and identified herself as the first Muslim CTS graduate.  

Another graduate spoke to the assembly, saying "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."

After the ceremony, the students celebrated by mingling with their teachers, families and friends. Bounds, who recently received an award from Union Theological Seminary for her work with CTS, looked on, relishing the scene. "The women are so happy," she said with a smile. "This is such a special day for them."

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