Students, former graduates and faculty at United Methodist Candler School of Theology are rallying to support “one of their own” who sits on death row in Georgia.
Kelly Renee Gissendaner was convicted of the murder of her husband and sentenced to death in 1998. The 46-year-old’s execution was scheduled for Feb. 25, but postponed due to a winter storm. A second date of March 2 was set, but that also was postponed due to a question about the effectiveness of the drug that was to be used.
During her time in prison, Gissendaner has turned her life “in a radically new direction and has benefitted many, many people,” said Jan Love, dean and professor of Christianity and World Politics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.
In 2011, Gissendaner graduated from the Certificate for Theological Studies program at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a yearlong academic program started in 2009. The program is sponsored in part by Candler School of Theology and was founded by Candler's Associate Professor of Christian Ethics Elizabeth M. Bounds and alumna Susan Bishop.
“This is a good illustration of an extraordinarily talented woman who sank into a very dark place and did some really horrible things. But it is just as poignant an illustration of God’s redemptive work in the world,” Love said.
Gissendaner’s first appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied Oct. 6, 2014. However, another appeal currently is before the court on grounds that Georgia’s lethal injection procedures aren’t transparent enough to be challenged in court.
Many United Methodists are praying for a third “miracle” that will allow Gissendaner to be taken off death row and live out the rest of her life in prison, where she has become a mentor and spiritual guide to other inmates.
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church condemn "torture of persons by governments for any purpose" (¶ 164A) and assert that it violates Christian teachings. The church, through its Social Principles, further declares, "We oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes" (¶ 164A).
This case is where the church’s Social Principles come to life, said the Rev. Ben Gosden, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Savannah, Georgia.
“This is a story about systemic injustice … this notion that we say in this country we believe our correctional system should be a source of restorative justice,” said Gosden. “Here is this profound example of a person who has been restored and is willing to spend the rest of her time in prison. Why are we insisting on killing her?”
Gosden and Love are among more than 500 clergy who sent a letter to the governor and other state officials calling for Gissendaner’s life to be spared.
Bill Mefford, director with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, also sent out an email alert urging United Methodists to also sign the petition and make calls to appeal for Gissendaner’s life.
On March 1, students, faculty, staff and alumni from Candler School of Theology and the Emory and Atlanta communities gathered in Cannon Chapel for a Vigil of Life, Light and Solidarity for Kelly Gissendaner.
Two former Candler students who have been chaplains at the prison and know Gissendaner spoke at the vigil, Love said. Others read from papers and poems Gissendaner wrote while in the certificate program.
Love and Godsen called her a gifted writer.
“Here is a woman on death row who can write theology like I have never read and not only that, can put a story to it,” said Gosden, who used her story as part of his sermon last week on the lectionary reading of Mark 8 about carrying the cross and the price of discipleship.
“Here is this unexpected story of a woman who met Jesus and literally said, ‘OK, I will carry a cross.’ Whether reaching out to suicidal inmates (or) mentoring troubled inmates she is a source of joy, a source of peace, source of mercy and love.”
Gissendaner is living out her ministry in a way that many “in our privileged, busy lives” never get around to doing, Gosden said.
Community surrounding Kelly
The Rev. Joseph McBrayer, campus minister of the Wesley Fellowship at Emory University, said many of his students are looking for a way to help Gissendaner.
“Our students here want to be involved and it is my job as their pastor to help them,” he said.
“A lot of interesting things are happening here especially in the season of Lent where we follow a risen savior who was executed by the state,” he said. “The whole season of Lent is the journey of the cross. I want my students to understand that what they do and what they think really can make a difference.”
Love said the case has been personal for the Candler community.
“The piece I am so proud of is (our community) responding with such expectant ministry and remarkable leadership. The proof in the pudding for us in educating our students. It is a very proud moment for those of us who work in the school to watch our students and our alumni be so incredible effective in their wider ministry to Atlanta and to Georgia. We all go through this experience together.”
Gosden said it is easy for those in the church and the academy to “get in a bubble” and not realize it.
“We use our code and language with each other. Kelly’s story is where those bubbles and boundaries just get burst wide open.
“This past week I have truly been proud of where I went to school because Candler answered a call in a moment where theology and living sort of met head on,” Gosden explained. “Gospel needs to be lived and proclaimed and embodied and they (Candler community) did.”
Remorse, responsibility, restoration
Gissendaner would be only the 16th woman put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. About 1,400 men have been executed since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In her application to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Gissendaner wrote: “It is impossible to put into words the overwhelming sorrow and remorse I feel for my involvement in the murder of my husband, Douglas Gissendaner.
“There are no excuses for what I did. … I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. … I rely on the steadfast and never-ending love of God.”
Love said United Methodists believe no human being is beyond redemption.
“God through Christ offers all of us redemption all of the time. Anyone who has sinned – and that happens to be all of us — can ask forgiveness for those sins and act to turn our lives around. God is not finished with anybody, God can redeem anybody. If God doesn’t give up on people, we shouldn’t give up on people.”