Guest post by Emily Michelle Ledder
I first heard of Kelly Gissendaner as the only woman on Georgia’s Death Row. I met Kelly as a student in a Prophetic Preaching class at Metro Women’s State Prison and got to know her as she worked with me on a 90-day Devotional Booklet entitled, “A Journey of Hope by Faith: Walking on the Road to Emmaus with Jesus.” I am sitting at home today just a few hours after the State of Georgia killed my former student who became a friend—a Death Row inmate who ended up ministering to me in my own time of spiritual need.
I was teaching the Prophetic Preaching class at Metro Women’s State Prison during the Fall of 2010. I often found myself inspired, encouraged, and bolstered in my own faith after reading Kelly’s homework assignments and hearing her sermons from the opposite side of prison bars. But it was one particular homework assignment that touched my deep need. Even though I am a minister, I struggle with always being able to recognize God’s love for me. As an incest survivor, I wonder often why God didn’t intervene on my behalf during the abuse. In 2010, Kelly wrote about experiences of suffering not pointing us away from God’s love but rather toward it. I wrote in response to her:
I know that the living God lives in and through you, my sister Kelly… Your response points directly to my main struggle with God – right now! I have a sticking point in my past where I ask God, “Why didn’t you intervene?” And I can’t seem to get over it – beyond it… But God answers me – is present with me in the midst of your entries. Thank you for being so open and free with the way you write into God’s calling for you. God is more real to me because of what you freely give.
Though I was there to offer ministry through teaching for the Theological Certificate Program, Kelly was the one who ministered to me. Just as God’s love has proven strong enough to reach Kelly while behind prison bars, God’s love became more real to me because Kelly ministered to me while we sat on opposite sides of those same prison bars. God did more than provide the grace necessary for Kelly’s redemption. God miraculously created a Ministry of Hope out of Kelly’s true repentance and radical transformation. And from Death Row, Kelly offered that same Ministry of Hope to everyone without discrimination.
Since the news of Georgia issuing a new death warrant and setting an execution date for Kelly, many stories have been shared about her ministry inside the prison walls, helping fellow inmates back from the brink of despair. A multitude of women, including but not limited to The Struggle Sisters, have related times when it was the voice of Kelly Gissendaner, coming from the vent their cells shared or through a hallway door slat, that allowed them to feel hope was possible even in the midst of the most dire circumstances. Their despair, anger, and violence toward others or themselves had made it impossible for them to live in general population. But Kelly’s compassion, advice, and sharing of God’s love for them served as the one thing that allowed them to realize there was hope for a different way to survive in prison, or, to survive at all.
The clemency packets Kelly’s lawyers compiled for appeals to commute her sentence from Death to Life in Prison are jam-packed with testimonies of her deep remorse and radical transformation. From former inmates, prison officers and former wardens, theological instructors, university and prison chaplains, to Gissendaner’s own children, all relate proof that the Department of Corrections in Georgia is doing what it says it’s all about: “providing effective opportunities for offenders to achieve positive change”
Realizing she could never make up for what she had done, Kelly shared her Ministry of Hope with everyone in her midst. Fellow inmates were given hope to live into a future that doesn’t erase one’s worst mistakes but rather survives despite them. Prison workers were given hope that even the most unlikely of inmates can be rehabilitated with the right balance of educational, training, and behavioral programs. Even ministers were given hope that in the midst of their own doubt the truth of God’s love and compassion is real, even for us.
Sadly, at 12:21am, Wednesday, September 30, 2015, the State of Georgia murdered Kelly. In the face of multitudes of testimonies, petitions from Pope Francis and Former GA Chief Justice Fletcher, and her own children who were forced to choose between pleading for their mother’s life and their last visit with her, the GA Board of Pardons and Paroles called for the murder of Kelly Gissendaner. Despite multiple chances for our legal system to recognize our cruel sentencing mistake, the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in the murder of Kelly Gissendaner. After God provided two miracles, one in a winter storm and another in a cloud, we allowed for the State of Georgia to set our face away from justice and deep into the eyes of revenge. Kelly was murdered in our name.
Yet out of the mist that covered Jackson State Prison and the South Georgia highways overnight, Kelly’s words to me in 2010 rang back truer than ever. After the announcement of her time of death, after the coroner’s van had carried her body away, after the wailing and hugging and gnashing of teeth, after the cameras had all gone away, it was like I heard Kelly whisper in the deepest places of my heart:
Michelle, our experiences of suffering do not point us away from God’s love, but rather, despite the suffering, God’s love gives us the power and courage to bear witness to God’s love.
Perhaps her same words will allow one more person of faith to refuse to doubt God’s love in times like this. Perhaps her words will challenge one hundred more people of faith to move with resolute commitment toward proclaiming the truths and power of God’s miraculous grace. Perhaps Kelly’s words will empower a thousand more people of faith to proclaim that each of us has been created with a humanness that can be reclaimed, restored, and redeemed by the God of justice and mercy. Perhaps Kelly’s words will create a fire within the hearts and souls and minds of a million people of faith giving us the strength and the courage and the hope to stand on the side of the prisoner and in the face of the Death Sentence Machine and proclaim, “No More!”
As people of faith, we must be willing to proclaim what we know in the deepest places of our souls to be true: that justice without mercy is simply and unequivocally vengeance. If only for self-preservation’s sake, we must refuse to allow for one more state-sanctioned murder to be committed in our name. For every time a death sentence is carried out, it is our humanness that is called into question, not the prisoner’s.
For the power of God’s grace transforms Moses the murderer into Moses the liberator. The power of God’s grace transforms Sauls into Pauls. And as some of us have experienced first-hand, the power of God’s grace transformed a Death Row inmate into a Ministry of Hope for inmates, prison workers, and ministers just like me.
So, Kelly, as you are absent from the body but present with the Lord, I want you to know that I’m sorry we could not figure out a way to help more people, especially the people who had full control over decisions yesterday, recognize how deep and real and full your transformation was. I know that the living God lives in and through you, my sister Kelly… Your homework back from 2010 rings deep in my heart right now in the hours after your execution and points to my main struggle with God – right now! In the midst of our hopes, and prayers, and activism to save Kelly’s life, I ask God, “Why didn’t You intervene?” And it seems like I won’t get over it – beyond it… But God answers me – is present with me in the midst of your sacred offering to me five years ago. Sister Kelly, thank you for being so open and free with the way you wrote into God’s calling for you. God is more real to me because of what you so freely gave.
Rest in peace and power, my friend. May your intervention for us be more powerful and successful than ours was for you.
Rev. Michelle Ledder is a scholar/activist, preacher, and teacher. An Itinerant Elder in the AME Church, she is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University in Homiletics and serves as an Associate Minister at Greater Turner Chapel AME in Atlanta, GA. She lives in Hampton, GA with her husband Scott and her 9-year-old rescued Schnoodle, Webster.