The course’s scriptural pulse was Matthew 25, where Jesus lays out what his followers should do for the “least of these,” including visiting them in prison.
“As Bishop Carder says, ‘Jesus’ list is not multiple choice,’” says Heather Rodrigues D’09, who also took the course.
But Carder insists that visiting jails and prisons is as much about blessings received as services rendered.
“I thought I was going to take God to the prison, but I discovered very quickly that God had been in the prison all along, wondering how long it was going to take me to arrive,” he says.
The mustard seed for the course was planted in 1968, when Carder was a young pastor in eastern Tennessee. At a UMC annual conference, he heard U.S. District Judge Frank Wilson speak of maintaining contact with everyone he sent to prison, and of believing clergy should be as familiar with the insides of local jails and prisons as they were the insides of local hospitals.
Carder had never been behind bars, but found his way to the Sullivan County, Tenn., jail, offering counsel. He was paired with a young man charged with armed robbery who asked, “How do I get God in my life?”
Carder recalls recovering enough from the blunt question to ask why the man felt he needed God. He opened up about all the wrong he’d done, the people he’d hurt; but other details — including time spent in foster homes — made clear that his trouble-making had a troubled context.
“My response to him,” says Carder, “was ‘It’s obvious that God is already in your life.’”
Carder soon began to change too, recognizing jails and prisons as a crucible for faith, shaping not only the incarcerated but those who visit or work among them.
“There are dimensions of God — the God of Exodus and God of Jesus — that we cannot know the depths of unless we’re willing to enter into prisons and other hurting places,” he said.
Through a long career as pastor and bishop, Carder would continue visiting jails and prisons, and he has stayed in close contact for more than two decades with an inmate convicted of murder. Carder also became an outspoken advocate for prison reform, including abolishing the death penalty.
When he joined the Duke Divinity faculty in 2004, he saw the potential for a specific course around prison ministry and restorative justice. He invited to campus Harmon Wray D’70, a prison reform advocate who taught such a course for Vanderbilt University Divinity School with students and inmates studying together at a Tennessee prison.