“Chaplain, I just wanted to drop in and say thank you for the worship Sunday night,” said one the women at the correctional center where I serve as chaplain.
“Well, thank you, Hannah. Tell me, which part of it was meaningful?” I responded.
Unfortunately, I thought worship that night was a bit of a flop.
“All of it. It had been a really horrible day, and I needed it.”
My missional roots grow deep. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a church planter. Elder William Hawthorn started churches in three states – the oldest, still-active church being Lennon’s Crossroads Baptist Church, originally located in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina.
My own heart for mission goes all the way back to Sunbeams, and, as a 15-year-old Acteen at Gordon Heights Baptist Church in Cairo, Ga., I believed God was calling me to be a missionary, but I couldn’t grasp how or where.
Today, I can look back at every crossroad in my life and see how God was leading, preparing and positioning me to be a prison chaplain.
From being the daughter of a 30-year career police officer, to traveling weekends on a Baptist Student Union team from Mercer University, to being a mid-life CBF leadership scholar at the Divinity School of Gardner-Webb University, to a wilderness time of not knowing – the journey eventually led to what was originally a one-year interim chaplain position at the former Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women in Black Mountain, N.C.
My colleague, chaplain Lynn Michie, took a sabbatical during the year the prison was preparing to move and grow.
Upon her return in 2008, we moved and changed the name to Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women (SCCW), and I was invited to remain on staff.
We left what had been an 80-bed facility with no fence to occupy a potential 500-bed facility surrounded by razor wire where the dorms of the old Juvenile Evaluation Center are being renovated, one by one. Today, we house 270 beds for women who have worked their way into minimum-security living.
Lynn and I are community-funded chaplains, which means that we are not state employees. Our salaries are fully dependent upon the fundraising efforts of the Ministry of Hope, an ecumenical nonprofit with a 14-year track record.
The community of Swannanoa Valley in Buncombe County, N.C., is awe-inspiring. Not only does the majority of our funding come from valley churches, individuals and civic organizations, but also in any given week, more than 300 volunteer hours of service provide six-hour passes for inmates to attend church or other activities of their choice.
Being the only women’s prison in all of western North Carolina, SCCW houses inmates from all across the state, but their families primarily live between Charlotte and Murphy.
A vast majority of the women are mothers who were their children’s primary caretakers before coming to prison. A vast majority of the women are in prison on drug-related crimes.
Addiction, with roots in victimization and complicated grief, plagues the women and often leads them to the chaplains’ office for pastoral care.
We provide support to the 90-day drug and alcohol treatment program where the past is dredged up and a foundation for recovery is laid. It is grueling but beautiful work as women begin to see themselves as God’s good creation.
Often, they lack hope, having returned to prison again and again with that devil of addiction on their backs, so we hold hope for them.
Every time I see my name on the CBF prayer calendar, it takes me back to a little cinderblock classroom on Tuesday afternoons, where we would learn about and pray for missionaries all around the world.
And my heart was warmed to hear Suzii Paynter further validate chaplains as missionaries when she spoke to us at the General Assembly luncheon for endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors.
Endorsement. Prayer support. Partnership. Connection. Roots.
“Thanks, chaplain, for being here. We need you.”
Carol Sasser Dalton is a CBF-endorsed chaplain who serves as a community-funded chaplain at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women in Black Mountain, N.C. A version of this article first appeared on the CBF blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: EthicsDaily’s forthcoming documentary focuses on faith and prisons. Additional information can be found here. Productions photos can be viewed in our Facebook album and on our Pinterest prison documentary photo board.