Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What church is all about

One night after youth group, I was asking the other youth leaders for advice on how to get the youth excited about the Scripture we were studying.  We were studying the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which I think are some of the most exciting and rich texts in Scripture, but somehow I was failing to get them excited about it.  As we talked about the youth, one father and I started to talk about the church in general.  I told him that I thought one of the most beautiful things about this church is how welcoming they are.  There is one member of the youth group who is of mixed race, and there are four children of mixed race in the children’s group.  The church has welcomed, embraced, and made them part of their community.  They are just as much a part of the youth and children’s groups as any members of those groups.  This was possible because some members of the congregation are very committed to welcoming everyone into their community.  There is, of course, still room for growth.  The journey toward faithfulness is slow and requires patience, but this was a real glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  

When I complimented the church for being so welcoming, the father said, “Well, I think that is what church is all about.”  He is right.  Church is a community of people who were once strangers but are now brothers and sisters.  It is a community that is open to receiving the stranger and incorporating them into their community.  It is a community that can welcome the stranger into its midst so that its members can learn from each another and grow together in their journey of discipleship. 


My name is Diana, and I’m going to be starting my second year in the masters of divinity program in just a few short weeks. My placement this summer was in Peachland, NC, which is just off of highway 74 between Monroe and Rockingham in Anson County. Peachland is also just 33 miles from my Granny’s house in Mount Gilead, so I was fortunate enough to be able to live with her this summer.

My supervisor, pastor Tracy Carroll, told me early this summer that she thought the time leading up to one’s death was holy time. She is very committed to being with her parishioners when they are sick and dying. She takes the command to visit the sick in Matthew 25 very seriously, and she has learned to see Christ during those visits. This summer, I’ve thought about what she said as I have spent time with Granny. She was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma in March, and her oncologist said she might have six months to live. I have watched her body grow weaker all summer. The vivacious woman that was playing 18 holes with her girlfriends just two years ago is now more like a skeleton draped in its own skin. The hands that crocheted my baby blanket are now shaky and can barely pull her body out of a chair. Her belly that bore my mother is now pregnant with her swollen spleen that is filled with the cancer that is eating her body from the inside out. Her legs that pushed her son’s wheelchair all of his life are now too weak to walk on their own, and now she must ride in her own wheelchair. The color of her skin has been fading, as the smell of death has been growing stronger. I have been thinking a lot about bodies - weak bodies, bodies that die.

Bodies journey toward their death from the moment they emerge from the womb. They begin and end in radical vulnerability and weakness. Yet it was in a particular body that God redeemed God’s entire creation. When our Lord ‘came and dwelt among us,’ He took on a body, a weak body that would die. It seems foolish that God would take on such weakness, but God’s power is not what the world calls strong and powerful. When ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,’ God revealed that God’s power is what the world calls weakness. The power of God was revealed in a dead and crucified Savior, and Matthew 25 tells us that it is in encountering the weak that we will continue to see this God revealed. Pastor Tracy was right; the time of death, the time of extreme weakness for human bodies, is holy time because we see the character of God revealed in this extreme weakness.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wisdom from Someone Who's "Been There"

In my interview with April Brown*, an employee at Presbyterian Prison Ministry and a former inmate at RCCW, April shared many wise words with me. As a woman who has “been there,” April seems to be keenly aware of the challenges facing women who transition from prison to society. The following insights are ones that really stood out to me:

• Women need a sponsor when they are in prison – and not a sponsor who is in it for their own personal well-being.

• The women need to be empowered, not enabled – there’s a huge difference. When we are enabled, our appreciation turns into expectation.

• One really important reality women in prison need to be aware of is how much things cost now, not how much things cost when they went to prison.

• When we are in prison, we think – “If we are liked by staff, then we are.”

• Some women know that they can be safe, protected, and known in prison; these things are not always a reality for them in the real world.

April’s insights bring up several issues. Without a doubt, there is a great need for sponsors to mentor the women, to help them grapple with the reality of the world, and to empower them. But we have to be wary of the motivations of the volunteers. I have met many volunteers who seem to be trying to save their own souls through their good deeds toward women in prison. Many of them are not mindful of trying to minister to these women as whole people, and they actually stifle their development by worrying more about what makes them feel good rather than what is really best for the women.

Another major issue is that sometimes prison is indeed a safer environment than the real world for many of these women. They may feel much more protected in prison than they ever have in their own homes. Many of these women also struggle with self-esteem issues, and being incarcerated probably only makes these issues worse. They struggle to be known, even if it means manipulating others. Many of them have more status in prison culture, than they do in society. And thus their self-worth and existence is often based on being liked by each other and/or the prison staff. Certainly, we must help these women struggle with these deep and complex issues so that they can successfully transition to society and not end up back in prison. And we need the help of selfless volunteers who are truly concerned with the healing and wellness of the women to do so.

(*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

a successful event

For the past couple of weeks, Jordan (a Pathways intern with Partners in Caring) and I have been doing a few activities with a local organization called ACRA. Aids Community Residence Association provides housing opportunities for people living with AIDS, some of whom are also dealing with other disabilities. Most of our activities have been with the residents of one of ACRA’s houses in south Durham. One day we enjoyed packed lunches and conversation while listening to a guy in a kilt play “free” music. We also took them to the NC Museum of Art, with which I was surprisingly impressed. Both of these events gave us some time and space to get to know the residents a little better, and I’m always amazed when my eyes are opened to see how seemingly ordinary moments become those holy conversations we couldn’t have planned or orchestrated.

In our initial conversation, one man suggested having a cookout for the residents of all the ACRA houses. So, for the past few weeks Jordan and I spent time planning the 1st Annual ACRA Cookout. This involved everything from finding a good location to deciding which board games to bring. Jordan asked and received a generous donation from her church that helped make the event possible, for which we were very thankful. We also made the effort to try to invite others from the community, including clients we had encountered through Partners in Caring as well as various case workers, local ministers, etc.

For some reason, in the whole planning process I found myself becoming anxious about the event. It may be that planning events and other like administrative tasks aren’t my ‘cup of tea.’ Regardless, I began to worry about the success of the event: “Will we have a good turnout?” “Do we have enough ‘fun’ things for the attendees to do?” “Will we have enough food for everyone?” “Will the baked beans get cold?” You get my point. One morning, a couple of days before the event, I spent some time reflecting and praying about this anxiety. In that time I realized how my anxious thoughts were unwarranted. I was reminded that the purpose of the event was not to have some blowout cookout that looked like a success from an outsider’s perspective. I really begin to consider that its purpose was holy fellowship, to bring different people together that we might all experience love, friendship, and community. With that purpose in mind, I was able to rest, sensing that God would be present in our little cookout and that I could rest knowing that the “success” of the event was already promised.

Well, the cookout has now come and gone. We had a great time together: eating hamburgers and hotdogs, playing dominoes, and simply enjoying each other’s company. At times both before and during the event when my anxious thoughts begged to resurface, I tried to remind myself of our purpose and to rest in the knowledge that its outcome was promised. Too often I get carried away by my own definition of “success,” which undoubtedly takes me to islands of worry and despair: “Will the baked beans get cold?” It’s actually nice to be reminded that my ways aren’t always God’s ways, and thus to be pulled back to the place where my definitions are reoriented to God’s purposes: “I am with you always…”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

APPEAL - Dallas, TX

This past week has been a bit crazy on the ICEOL side of the placement. There was a lot of last minute things to do as we prepared to take APPEAL to Dallas, TX for the medical community there. For this conference we worked with a steering committee of just over 20 people, representing several different organizations around the Dallas area. On Thursday I travelled to Dallas with Lindley and Brandy, the other two field education students attatched to ICEOL. We were joined by the Betsy Randall David who collabroated with Dr. Payne (Director of ICEOL) and other APPEAL faculty to design activities for the various modules to improve the quality of the APPEAL training for adult learning. As soon as we arrived in Dallas we hurried over to the conference site at Methodist Charleton Medical Center to help finish up all the set-up for the next morning. Afterwards we went straight to Trece to join the faculty and a few of the Dallas folks to discuss last minute things and get to know one another. Since I was able to go and work APPEAL in Pittsburgh back in April this was a fun time to see the returning faculty and catch up with them.

The next morning we started bright and early by getting to the conference site at 7am and large cup of coffee in hand. The conference seem to go very well. We had about 160 participants who were all very actively participating and asking questions despite the large number of people. For me personally I had a bit more responsibility in terms of AV and playing the DVD segments the faculty chose to use during their presentations. We were at the conference site until about 6:30pm and then headed back to the hotel. Where we were staying at was about two blocks from where President Kennedy was assassinated so Lindley, Pastor Corey (one of the faculty) and I went exploring all of the sites near the hotel when we got back on Friday night. The Taste of Dallas was also going on this weekend in the same general area so we walked around a bit in there. Corey test drove the new Hyundai Genesis, we played Wii, recorded a cheer for the USA Olympic team, tried free samples of Starbucks and had some really good conversation over dinner about chaplaincy, care at the end of life and churches. It all started over again the next morning at 7:30am and ending at 1pm with the module on spirituality. I got back to Durham around midnight and am gearing up to finish out the last couple weeks of field ed.

Here are a few pics:

As part of the Spirituality module, Corey has all the participants stand and sing "Soon and Very Soon"

This was my post for the entire conference to run AV stuff for faculty

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cloud of Witnesses

This morning I sat in a memorial service at the Unicorn Bereavement Center (part of Duke Hospice) along with the other hospice chaplains, various staff and a few volunteers. We sat in a circle as one of the bereavement counselors lit a candle and led the service. A list of the names of those who had died in the past month were read aloud. There were about 50-60 names read during the time and I sat pondering the names as each was read. Afterwards there was time for those who had gathered to share stories and memories about those who had passed, so there were tears and laughter shared in that space.

Of the 50-60 names read this morning I was amazed at the number of names that I knew in varying degrees. There were countless names I recognized from the morning ritual of checking my voicemail to hear the messages that nurses, social workers, chaplains, ect left for one another to stay in contact with one another about patients so they could care for patients in a holistic way. Five more of the names read aloud had passed through my life, and even if for a brief moment touched my life by being privileged to be invited by them to share in their life. These names were of patients I had met during my time with hospice when I was shadowing various hospice staff. Although I met them and visited with them for one time I remembered my time spent with each of them.

There was also one name that I anticipated hearing as they went down the list. My patient Esther* that I have mentioned before passed away a couple weeks ago. Esther* was one of my "stable" patients who had been on hospice care for over a year and so her death was bit unexpected because she didn't seem to be what we call "actively dying." On a Thursday afternoon I visited with her and stayed about 40 minutes. During our time together she continued to show strong faith and peace in God that she was ready to go whenever He was ready to take her, but peaceful if her time wasn't yet. Esther* had enjoyed Jodi singing for her when I came with her to meet Esther* for the first time and so I offered to sing to her while I was there. When asked her favorite hymn she said anything would be fine. In trying to pick older hymns she may be familiar with I chose Amazing Grace and It Is Well. As I sang the words Esther* tried to sing along quietly when she knew the words, and when she felt her singing voice failing her she joined me by humming along as I sang. Because her eyes didn't let her read much anymore I offered to read some scriptures to her, and we finally picked the Beatitudes. When I asked Esther* what her favorite passage of scripture was she told me it was the story of Jesus calming the storm. We then had a great conversation about how God comes to us and calms the storms in our lives, and I felt that she was also speaking of the peace God continued to give her in her own illness. I also felt a connection back to the hymn we sang earlier in the visit, It It Well, which speaks of peace, being well, in your soul written by a man who lost his family on a boat in a storm, and wrote the words of the song when he passed through that exact spot. Before I left that day Esther* wanted to tell me of a dream she had. She dreamt that a man was calling her name and it was so real that she got out of bed and walked into the living room to look out the windows and see where the voice was coming from. She did not recognize the voice, but was also not disturbed by this experience. That was Thursday afternoon.

The following Wednesday morning I was checking my voicemail and heard the report of her time of death the day before. There are stories of many people seeing and hearing those that have passed on before them coming to make the end of the journey with them. I witnessed this with my own father in the last weeks of his life where he saw his father, who died way before I was born, and his mother, who died when I was about 13 years old, and said they had been there with him and talked to him. At the time I thought he delirious from pain meds or the cancer, and only later did I find out that this experience is not uncommon for those at the end of life, no matter their faith background. Perhaps Esther* wasn't dreaming, we'll never know. I can't help but think how peaceful it is to think that maybe we're not alone when we're at the end of life and those who have made that final journey before are there to accompany us on our journey. Maybe there is something to say theologically about the saints that pass on before us and the great cloud of witnesses that continues to surround us all.

*name changed for confidentiality

Monday, July 7, 2008

Living Out Prayer

I was caught by surprise when Chaplain Boykin asked me to lead a session on prayer. It wasn’t that his expectation was out of the ordinary, but I simply did not know what I would say. I felt very inadequate leading a session on prayer, knowing that I struggle with my own prayer life. In fact, in order to be truly honest I must admit that I don’t pray very often, especially on my own. I feel more comfortable praying in worship services than I do spending time at home in prayer. I often find my mind drifting, wondering how I really should pray. I stop myself and ask if I really think God interacts with the world in that specific way. I wonder why we ask God for things that are contrary to the nature of life. I wonder why we ask God to change things that happen because of bad decisions we make. I even wonder why we sometimes blame God for death or tragedy. I get really upset when I hear someone say that God “protected” their loved one from dying from car wreck or plane crash or a natural disaster when there are many other people who died from that same tragedy. Did God not protect the people who died? Did the ones who died or their families not pray hard enough? I don’t think so. Our world is a tragic place. Bad things happen, and we all eventually die. The only thing I feel like I can say with certainty is that God suffers with us through the mess.

Since my view of God and prayer has changed, I have a lot of head knowledge about what I think, but I have not really internalized or practiced prayer in a way that incorporates my theology. So this assignment turned out to be an opportunity for me to really wrestle with my theology of prayer. I had the chance to talk with Chaplain Arthur, a former chaplain at RCCW, about her thoughts. She reminded me that prayer is not necessary about my theology but it’s about my relationship with God. I don’t have to understand God to pray. She also reminded me of the importance of being quiet and asking God to speak to me.

I also read through two books on prayer. Joyce Rupp in her book entitled Prayer reminded me that we must have faith when we pray “because we cannot prove much about prayer” (10). It was comforting to hear her say that some of us are drawn to God not by “obvious passion” but by “an unnamable restlessness or a perpetual searching” (23). While I may have been passionately drawn to God before, I find that my unsettled questioning and searching is what brings me to God now. Rupp also reminded me that, just like our human relationships, our relationship with God becomes more about faithfulness instead of feelings when we grow and mature. She suggests that we should become aware of the sacred moments in our everyday existence.

Daniel Wolpert, in his Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, reminded me that prayer is not just about a few isolated moments in our day but it is about creating a life with God and “enabling the love of God to permeate all that we do” (16). I was reminded of the practices of solitude and silence, lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, creativity (writing, decorating, cooking, gardening, etc.), journaling, body prayer, and praying in nature. After reading his book I was reminded that I can pray the prayers that I use in worship services at home when I cannot find the words to pray. I can pray through the Psalms or pray while I’m on a walk or while I tend to the flowers and herbs on my porch. I can pray as I cook or as I write or as I do other rituals. So while my mind has been expanded as to what prayer is, I find that I have not connected these things I have learned to my life. Maybe I have even been praying more than I thought. I feel refreshed from what I have gleaned through this opportunity, and I feel challenged to let what I know truly make a difference in how I live. I hope that I can learn how to live out prayer and be more fully aware of all the different ways I'm already praying.

Full Citations for these two books:
  • Joyce Rupp, Prayer. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.
  • Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Environment, Human Agency, or God's Plan?

During my orientation with the North Carolina Division of Prisons, Chaplain Betty Brown, Director of Chaplaincy Services, gave me a book to read called The Female Offender: Girls Women and Crime by Meda Chesney-Lind. Let me share some of what I learned from the first two chapters:

In 1991…

• 32% of women in prison had been abused either physically or sexually before the age of 18, often by a family member or intimate acquaintance. (4)

• 58% grew up in homes without both parents presence and in 34% of these homes the adults abused alcohol and drugs. (4)

• 1 out of 5 spent time in foster care. (4-5)

• 43% by adulthood had been victims of sexual or physical violence (by spouses, boyfriends, and friends). (5)

• In 1990, 61.2% of girls in the juvenile justice system had experienced physical abuse. Reporting the abuse caused no change or made it worse. (26)

• “…Many young women are running away from profound sexual victimization at home, and once on the streets, are forced into crime to survive.” (27)

Meda Chesney-Lind, wanting to make her point clear, states, “To say that a person has had a set of experiences (even very violent ones) is not to reduce that person to a mindless pawn of personal history, but rather to fully illuminate the context within which that person moves and makes ‘choices’.” (30-31)

Chesney-Lind’s insights into the context of female offenders brings about a very important question: how much do we attribute crime to the situation in which these women find themselves and how much do we attribute crime to their personal agency or choices? People who work in the prison system have varying opinions, but I think we must wrestle with both the women’s life situations and their agency and choices. Which one has a greater impact on crime? I really don’t know. But I do think that as Christians, we must work to bring about healing and change within situations of abuse, violence, and poverty, and at the same time, we must examine the role of human agency and sinfulness. When I say “sinfulness,” I am not only alluding to acts of crime but also to our acts of neglect that have led to abuse, violence, and poverty.

At the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, I have discovered that the theology of many of the women plays a major role in how they process their crime. Time after time I have heard women say that God brought them to prison for a reason, to teach them a lesson, to allow them to minister to other women, etc. While I don’t doubt their ability to minister to one another, I have to wonder what role responsibility for one’s actions plays when they believe that God micromanages their every move, even their crime, for reason or to teach them a lesson. It often seems that some of these women release their own responsibility by attributing their crime to God’s plan. What kind of theology has allowed for this thinking? What is my role as a chaplain in responding to women who voice this theology? I’m trying to listen to their stories before I talk too much. And at the same time, I gently offer a different perspective, mostly through probing questions instead of declarations of my belief. As I continue to be present, I will keep pondering the roles of one’s environment, one’s agency, and one’s theology in the act of crime.

(Meda Chesney-Lind, The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Voices of the Daughters of God

It has long been a dream of mine to read the stories of outcast women in scripture with outcast women in our society to see what we could learn together. I was first introduced to difficult texts that portrayed the abuse of women at Campbell University by my Old Testament professor, Dr. Kathy Lopez. As we read Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, my eyes were opened to the painful parts of our scripture. Dr. Portier-Young, Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, challenged to think about how I could read these texts with marginalized people in our society. She introduced me to Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned, through which I was summoned to value biblical interpretation by people from all areas of society. When I found out that I had been placed at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women for the summer, I eagerly hoped I would be able to read these texts with these imprisoned women. My supervisor, Rev. Proctor, graciously agreed to help me make it happen. On June 9, I started an eight week study (that I am writing as we go) called “The God who sees and hears us is God with us: Reflections on Marginalized Women in Scripture.” We have studied the stories of Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter and the mourning women, and Tamar. In the weeks to come, we will reflect on the unnamed concubine, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the bent over woman, and the woman who anointed Jesus. We will pause to listen to the stories of these women and recover their voices since many of them have been silenced by the text. We will seek to discover how God saw them, heard them, and was present with them in the midst of their suffering, abuse, and marginalization.

From the very beginning of this study, we covenanted together to stay on task in order to be respectful of the time we have together; to hold all of our conversations in confidence; to treat one another with respect, gentleness, and loving care; and to honor all voices and perspectives by withholding judgment. We have sought to make our group a safe space for all, and I think we have succeeded in doing so. Surprisingly, we have even stayed on topic and not ventured into the land of gossip, which happens frequently in many of the Bible studies at the prison. The women have been interested in the text and how it connects to their lives. They were open on the first day to talk about the power of human actions in relationship to the story of Hagar. During the second session, the discussion of how Jepthah’s unfaithful vow led to the sacrifice of his daughter led to the women sharing about how the church has helped to perpetuate their abuse, instead of stopping it. The third week when we talked about the rape of Tamar by her very own brother, the women shared their personal stories of abuse and rape and how they could relate to Tamar. One woman told us of how she just barely avoided being raped by hiding in a closet. Like I had imagined, these texts brought up painful experiences for these women in their own lives. When I asked what they thought about Absalom killing Amnon for raping their sister Tamar, one woman told me she thought Amnon got what he deserved and that people like him should be killed. I asked her if she thought that we should go get everyone who had ever raped anyone right now and take them all down to Central Prison and execute them. She hesitated to answer, but you could tell she probably didn’t think it was a bad idea. I just sat there in silence for awhile, not really knowing how to respond. When I finally spoke, I told her that I meant what I had said at the very beginning of the Bible study – that we would really honor everyone’s voice. The women laughed after hearing my response. I think they laughed because they saw me not knowing how to respond and because they were relieved and maybe even surprised that I really meant that we would honor everyone’s voice. I think they also laughed because of the irony of the situation. Here they are sitting in prison, talking about how people should be executed for their crimes. I did tell this woman that while I thought that abusers should be punished, I did not think they should be executed.

Another woman spoke up and asked me what did I think would be sufficient punishment. She told me that her abuse had greatly affected her whole life, and while she admitted that she knows we shouldn’t kill people, she wasn’t ready to “go there” yet. Her pain is still too overwhelming. I told her that I honored her voice and the pain from which she spoke but that I didn’t think that continuing the cycle of violence was the answer. Not all of the women agreed with the perspectives of these two women. When one woman (the same one who said Amnon got what he deserved) voiced that she thought God allowed her to be raped and that she even deserved it because of the situation she put herself in, another woman spoke up and told her that nothing she could ever do would make her deserve to be raped. I told her that it was one thing to speak of how God helps you through difficult situations but that God did not allow her to be raped. We talked again about the messes humans make because of the actions that they choose. Indeed, this woman’s thought that God would allow her to be raped is evidence of the ways we as the church have read scripture unfaithfully and perpetuated the cycle of abuse.

I am grateful that in our study we could create a space where these women could speak honestly to one another and affirm God’s love and care for each of them and God’s desire for them to be whole. It is my hope that through our study, we will continue learn something about God’s faithful presence with us in every season of our lives, even those seasons of devastation, loneliness, and pain. It is my desire that through the recovering of the voices of women in scripture, these women will continue to discover their value and worth as daughters of God.

Embodying the Gospel within the Prison Walls

Maybe it was a mix of naiveté and wishful thinking or just plain ignorance that I thought I would find the women at the prison to be progressive thinkers, ready to change the society around them, at least those circumstances that played a role in the choice they made that led them to prison. I was so incredibly mistaken. The women at Raleigh Correctional Center for Women have developed a truly fundamentalist culture, in which they believe that if they really trust in God this time then God will protect them and everything will be okay. If they pray and trust “hard enough,” they will even be able to open their own businesses because for them, God shows this kind of favor to God’s people. I have also found the women to be, not only manipulative, but also arrogant and demanding. They feel as if you “owe them” because of all of the time they have spent in prison. I understand that they would have trust issues, but I guess I expected to receive a little more respect. I have been gently reminded on a few occasions that there is a reason why these women are in prison.

I had several disappointing interactions while trying to prepare for the worship service I led on June 15. The chaplain’s clerk got angry with me because I did my own program. Even though she knew I did it because the head chaplain asked me to do so, she told me that she would never do another program for them. The gospel choir was very resistant to help me with songs I wanted them to sing for the service. They were angry that I wanted them to sing a certain version of the song “Nobody Knows” – they called it her version, as if I had written the song. Only four out of the eight or nine women even showed up on Sunday to sing. So in my first four weeks of being at the prison, I found myself in a situation where I could not often identify with the spiritual experiences of the women, and I was also surrounded by a mix of other issues, which to no small degree include class and race issues. I was frustrated and disappointed and not quite sure how these women would respond to my sermon.

To my surprise, the worship service that I led went beautifully. The women really enjoyed the musicians I brought with me, and they were responsive and engaged with the sermon. Afterwards I had many women come up and offer affirmation to me. One woman told me that she had gotten some new things from my sermon that she needed to think about and process. And word travels fast on the prison grounds. A small group of women came to the service, but before I knew it, women all over came up to me and told me that they had heard that I did a good job. Even the woman in the gospel choir who had the worst attitude with me told me that she heard I did a wonderful job and that I was going to make a great preacher. Her attitude had changed. I felt as if many of the women saw me differently.

I have no other words to describe this change other than I think I had to “prove” something to these women before they would accept me as a chaplain. I’m not sure what that something was or if it was the same thing for every woman. It does make sense however that they would not trust or respect me until they had a reason to do so. Maybe that worship service was the first opportunity they had to see me as a pastor, as someone who cared, as someone who declared that God loves them and is with them in the midst of all of the seasons of their lives. I know that they couldn’t have agreed with all of the theology that I communicated through the sermon, but I think they did receive the message of God’s love. Perhaps, there is something to be said about the pastoral authority that comes from proclaiming God’s word. Or maybe it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s about embodying the gospel with your whole being so that the way you relate to others proclaims God’s love. Perhaps, the women came to trust me because I revealed my care for them as God’s children. And maybe that’s why my theology didn’t threaten them. Instead, they seemed to seriously consider how what they heard affected their faith.

I also think it mattered that I didn’t pretend to have all the answers. I admitted in the sermon what troubled me and what I didn’t understand about the text. I even uttered the words – “I do not know.” I invited them to think with me about the text instead of telling them one interpretation was the only possible interpretation. For whatever reason, I’ve always thought that my painful honesty in my preaching, teaching, and conversation was a negative aspect to who I am as a minister. I cannot even try to hide my true feelings because my facial expressions always take over and communicate what I don’t always want to admit. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they will tell you that you can usually tell what I’m thinking by just simply looking at me. Many of the women at RCCW have already experienced my confusion through my facial expressions in conversation and Bible studies. They heard it through my spoken words in my sermon. I now see that perhaps this honesty is also a part of my embodiment of the gospel. Sometimes the truth is painful, and Christ calls us to speak the truth in love, not to cover it up in order for everyone to “feel good.” Trying to reckon with our call as the body of Christ is hardly ever easy, and maybe it it’s not a bad thing to embody that confusion and restlessness that often comes after hearing Jesus’ words to come and follow him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Violence

The first week of my field education with the Department of Chaplaincy Services at the Division of Prisons I attended the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence Biennial Conference with Chaplain Betty Brown. I was privileged to listen in on conversations between workers from the Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, the Division of Mental Health, and various domestic violence programs and shelters. The most interesting workshop that I attended was entitled “Domestic Violence and Children: Survival and Transcendence” led by Kit Gruelle and Lisa Floyd. Kit is a domestic violence survivor and an advocate for battered women and children. As the conference manual states, Lisa’s “voice and experience of calling 911 as a 6 year old girl, one night many years ago (the Lisa tape), has been used since then to educate thousands of people about domestic violence and the impact on children.” Listening to Lisa call 911 on this particularly horrible night was a heart-wrenching experience. While listening to her stepfather beat her mother, she continually used the word “please” when asking the dispatcher to send the police or hold on a minute and repeatedly voiced her concern for her “very delicate” baby brother and her little sister.

Several years ago, Kit was working with the police department and asked someone, “I wonder what this little girl is doing now. I wonder if we could find her and see how she’s doing.” The police were able to locate Lisa, and Kit’s knock on Lisa’s door was the beginning of a very meaningful friendship. Kit discovered that Lisa was in an abusive relationship of her own, but since they have met, Kit has helped Lisa walk through the process of ending that relationship. Lisa says that when she got pregnant with her second child something in her just snapped, and she knew she had to get out because she did not want to end up like her mother.

Lisa had no idea that her tape was being used to educate people about the effects of domestic violence on children. She only vaguely remembers signing away her rights to this tape, and no one ever told her why exactly they wanted it. Now as a twenty four year old woman, she still cannot listen to the tape because of all the pain she fears would surface. She wonders why they picked this particular tape since she called the police hundreds of times. Through her tears, she shared with us that her mother had not changed, that her older brother was in jail, that her sister was getting into trouble, and that she feared for the future of her little brother. She pleaded with the Child Protective Service (CPS) workers in the room to always be mindful of the child victims of domestic violence. The reality of her life and the lives of her siblings is a great testimony to the effects of domestic violence on children. Lisa told us that there were twenty-three documented cases of CPS coming to her house and that she nor her siblings were ever taken away from her mom. She said that she wishes she had been. Although she admitted that she would not have wanted to leave her mom initially, she said that in the end it would have been a better situation. She challenged us to always remember the children when dealing with domestic violence because they have no control or power to change their situation.

Someone asked Lisa if the church ever played a role in helping her family with domestic violence issues. She said that she did not believe in God, but she knew of many people who did have faith and that their faith helped them “get through it.” I have to wonder if they meant they “got through it” by themselves with a silent response from the church. What have we done as Christians to help victims of domestic violence and even their abusers? Have we contributed to the problem with unfaithful readings of scripture? Have we ignored the signs and pretended as if nothing was wrong? How do we learn to speak honestly about the presence of domestic violence in the families who sit in our pews? And what can we do to minister to the abusers? I heard many of the groups at the conference speak very strongly about locking abusers up. But even if they are imprisoned, they will eventually get out. And, as Christians, locking people up cannot be the solution for us. How will we help to bring about change in the lives of all who are caught up in the cycle of domestic violence? How will share God’s love with them all, even the abusers?

Hope Center

I thought you might enjoy seeing pictures of where chaplaincy takes place at RCCW...

Entrance to the Hope Center

Sculpture by a family member of a former chaplain & The Chaplains' Office

My favorite part of the office decor

The Worship Space

The Hope Community Library

Prison Chaplaincy

This summer I have had the wonderful privilege of being placed with the Division of Prisons through the North Carolina Department of Correction. My initial contact was through Chaplain Betty Brown, Director of Chaplaincy Services, and after hearing about my particular passions and interests in ministry, Chaplain Brown placed me at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women (RCCW).


Chaplaincy services at RCCW are provided by Presbyterian Prison Ministry (PPM) in a building on the prison grounds called the Hope Center for Worship and Education (donated by White Memorial Presbyterian Church in 2001). The executive director of PPM is Rev. Caroline Craig Proctor. Rev. Proctor is my direct supervisor, and I have found her to be a wise, insightful, and caring minister. My supervision time with her has been one of my favorite parts of my field education. Chaplain Nathaniel Boykin is the primary chaplain on the grounds at RCCW, and he has a deep care for the women there. He has been very generous in sharing his wisdom with me this summer and helping to make my time at the prison meaningful.

Rev. Caroline Craig Proctor

Chaplain Nathaniel Boykin and his wife, Gwen

For quite a while now, I have felt called into the ministry of chaplaincy, but until this past year, I had never considered prison chaplaincy. For whatever reason, I had not heard much about this type of ministry. And while I was attuned to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick people that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25, I often overlooked the part that says "I was in prison and you visited me." What is interesting is that many of the homeless people that I met last summer during my field education with HomeStar Fellowship were people who had not successfully transitioned from prison to society. We as the church must not overlook prisoners. We must embrace and care for least of these as we would embrace and care for Jesus. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the possibility of prison ministry being a part of my call to chaplaincy.