“I will never forget when we were taken outside to where these prisoners were allowed to have their hour of exercise and sunshine a day,” says Christa Mazzone Palmberg D’09. “It looked like the adult version of a dog kennel. Each cage had nothing in it.”

The lengthy discussion sessions with inmates ranged from the free-wheeling to a consideration of Good Punishment? Prison staff arranged for a group of crime victims to come to the prison and meet with inmates and students. (The victims had not been offended by any of the inmates at the prison.) Willis feels that the discussion lacked the punch it could have had, but one theme was clear to her over the sessions.

“They don’t want to be defined by their crime,” she says. “At Duke, we talk a lot about imago dei — [the idea] that in each person there’s a spark of God, and that what we need to do is go find that, and value the unique treasure that each person is, because God made them that way. The guys definitely wanted us to see that they do have worth, and that just because they are where they are doesn’t mean they should be thrown away.”

Differences emerged between the students and prison chaplains. Some chaplains objected when students used the inmates’ first names, citing the Bureau of Prisons’ practice of using last names. A certain, Carder-encouraged value — seminarians were there to learn from the inmates — also troubled some chaplains.

“We were told early on that we were being gullible when we called the inmates our teachers,” Heather Rodrigues says. “But they were our teachers — even those whose stories were stretched or who worked to manipulate our sympathy. They, too, taught us, for prison ministry is not without its pitfalls.”

Carder acknowledges that the chaplains and the students were coming to discussions with different sets of lenses, but believes that had changed by the last visit. He recalls that one of the chaplains eventually concluded, “The students need an immersion in the prison, and I think I need an immersion in divinity school.”

Carder’s course didn’t end in the classroom or the prison. The final gathering was a worship service in an intimate space within Duke Chapel, with a specially written liturgy and reflection about what they’d all learned. There were prayers for everyone affected by the corrections system, and promises exchanged about staying engaged by visiting jails and prisons, and advocating for reform.

Though they spent a semester studying a troubling topic, Carder’s students seem to compete for superlatives to describe the experience. Campbell is right there with them.

“The course was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life,” he says.

Meanwhile, Carder looks forward to having another group of Duke Divinity students join him in finding God in prison. He plans to teach the course again, next spring semester.

Nick Liao, a 2009 master of divinity graduate and participant in Professor Carder’s course, wrote a similar story for the Divinity School course “Journalism as Christian Practice.” He currently lives in Chicago, where he works with InterVarsity Press. Sam Hodges covers religion for The Dallas Morning News.

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