Transcripts

Former Prison Chaplain Shares Stories Of Faith Behind Bars

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I’m Rebecca Sheir and today we're going to talk about something that you can have, you can keep or you can break. It can be an act, it can be a leap, it can be bad, it can be good, but if it's strong enough, truly strong enough, it just might be able to move mountains. We're talking about faith.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:33
And we're not just talking about faith of the religious variety. In fact, in a Gallop Poll last year, just 30 percent of D.C. residents described themselves as very religious. That compares with 58 percent in Mississippi, the most religious state in the nation according to the pollsters. So today we'll bring you a show about faith of all sorts. We'll meet a minister who's trying to keep his faith after his church burned to the ground.

REV. CARL PEREZ

00:00:58
People say the church is the people, that is true, but the people gather in a building, and so that's one of the things that we sort of are missing.

SHEIR

00:01:07
We'll talk with a prison inmate who's learning to develop new faith in himself and his future.

MR. MICHAEL JONES

00:01:11
You wake up and you see this drab paint, these metal bunks and, oh, my goodness, what in the world happened?

SHEIR

00:01:17
We'll also check out a play, by a playwright/priest, that's all about finding faith through family relationships.

MR. RYAN RILETTE

00:01:25
The message of the play is that every 100 years every family should look back at their family story and write that down. And that's how we find God. That's how we add our own book to the Bible.

SHEIR

00:01:39
But first, what happens when a tea-loving British minister walks in to a medium-security prison? Kind of sounds like the set-up to an old joke, right? But it's not. It's what actually happened to professional storyteller and ordained minister, Geraldine Buckley. And Sister Geraldine, as the inmates called her, didn't just walk in to that medium security prison in Hagerstown, she walked in to teach poetry.

MS. GERALDINE BUCKLEY

00:02:04
"There are some nights that change everything. I had one of those on November the 11th, 2004. That was the first time I went to prison."

SHEIR

00:02:16
This is the opening of Buckley's story, "The Night That Everything Changed." You can hear it on her 2010 CD, Destination: Slammer, True Tales of Life and Laughter. She's talking about her first time volunteering to lead a creative workshop at the Maryland Correctional Training Center or MCTC, where, just a few years later, she would become the chaplain.

BUCKLEY

00:02:35
I'd gone in and prayed for the last chaplain on his last day. It was surprise party. And I just prayed that God would protect the church, and that only the chaplain God wanted to come in would come in. And as I prayed, I knew how difficult it would be. And so I thought, the poor next Chaplain. I really pray for the next chaplain. I had no idea it was going to be me, and I was going to need every one of those prayers.

SHEIR

00:03:00
Buckley is ordained with Faith Christian Fellowship.

BUCKLEY

00:03:03
Which is strong on the words, strong on the moving of the Holy Spirit.

SHEIR

00:03:06
But she says she began telling stories long before she found religion.

BUCKLEY

00:03:10
I've always been passionate about creativity. I've done creative stuff since I was knee-high.

SHEIR

00:03:15
And that creative stuff includes radio D-Jing, reading the TV news, ghostwriting books and doing food reviews. And once Buckley found religion, she started infusing it into her creative work, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.

BUCKLEY

00:03:29
I know I'm a very unlikely slam poet, but I was the 1997 London-Farrago slam champion. I did in-your-face Jesus poems and won these really secular competitions, in the sleaziest places, because when it first started it was pretty underground. But if you're going to do, seriously, in-your-face Jesus poems, in sleazy places, wonderful for learning how to develop audience skills.

SHEIR

00:03:54
And Buckley suspected she'd need all the audience skills she could muster when she led that first poetry workshop at MCTC. Here she is again, telling her story, "The Night That Everything Changed."

BUCKLEY

00:04:04
"Well, I hyperventilated all the way into the chapel, and the men were already there. Well, they weren't men, they were giants. I know that every single one of them was glaring at me. I know that every single one of them was rippling their enormous muscles at me. I know that every single one of them was covered from head to toe in full-body tattoos. I just know it."

SHEIR

00:04:26
But the thing is, really, she didn't know it. Or yeah, even if some of the guys were seriously inked-up, they weren't glaring, they weren't rippling. Or, okay, if they were, it didn't last long because by the end of that workshop, Buckley says, every single one of them was sharing his feelings, his thoughts, his words. And it wasn't long before Buckley returned to lead more workshops, again and again and again.

BUCKLEY

00:04:49
Creativity is powerful. And we all need it. I mean, when I see how those men responded -- I mean, I'd get to them to write sonnets. I mean, and just for fun, we'd go through all these poetry forms, and they were brilliant.

SHEIR

00:05:02
And not just brilliant, Buckley said, but potentially more peaceful.

BUCKLEY

00:05:08
There are enormous surveys that show if prisoners do creativity, there is an enormous decline in prison violence.

SHEIR

00:05:15
And while violence is going down, things like confidence, she says, are going up.

BUCKLEY

00:05:20
If people are going to get out, it strengthens their spirit, enables them to be able to get jobs, and hugely reduces the recidivism rate.

SHEIR

00:05:28
Buckley led her workshops for several years. Sometimes the men would write, sometimes they'd sing or dance. One time, they even put on a full-fledged musical production, called "From Darkness To Light."

BUCKLEY

00:05:39
And it's not like doing a production anywhere else, you have dress rehearsals and you have tech rehearsals. You can't have anything like that in a prison. So we did this whole thing on prayer power, oh God, oh God, oh God, if you don't come through…

SHEIR

00:05:51
Now again, this was all before Buckley was named prison chaplain. Once that happened, she had to juggle a bunch of other duties, like leading prayer, acting as grief counselor, but she did her best to keep the creativity flowing behind those bars.

BUCKLEY

00:06:04
I saw who these men were. I know they were inmates. I know they were all in there because most of them had done something really awful. I didn't want to know what it was. But I called forth their potential.

SHEIR

00:06:14
And they, she says, responded. Many went on to become leaders in the prison church. One guy decided to get his master's degree. And all of them, she says, all of them found a new chance to express themselves, who they really were and who they really wanted to be.

BUCKLEY

00:06:30
All I was doing was just encouraging. And it's taking pain out so healing can come in. And if you get all the noise out, you suddenly realize, I have potential, even if I'm behind the bars.

SHEIR

00:06:39
Buckley left her position as prison chaplain in January 2010. Since then, she's continued telling stories at festivals and events, and she's continued spreading that healing power of creativity.

BUCKLEY

00:06:51
I went into an alternative school for children who are one step away from being in prison, teaching them to tell stories. And so I'm starting to look at doing more of that.

SHEIR

00:07:02
In the meantime, Geraldine Buckley leaves next month for a storytelling festival in New Zealand. Then she's off to Fredonia, New York, to perform her brand new show, "Tea in the Slammer," for the Criminal Justice Department at the State University of New York. After that, she'll be back in D.C., performing her show at Capital Fringe Festival. And the show, by the way, ends with a poem Buckley wrote right after leading that first poetry workshop at the Maryland Correctional Training Center.

SHEIR

00:07:26
It's called "Do Not Think." And it begins, do not think I have forgotten you, though you dwell in this desolate place, though cold and gloom encircle you and despair has pushed out grace…

BUCKLEY

00:07:39
The plans I have for you hold true, though all around has changed. Though your hopes and dreams are smashed, destroyed, your future rearranged. For there is destiny upon your life, I have not changed my mind. Your name is scribed upon my palm. You will not be left behind. My training grounds are mine to choose, this one's austere, no light. But from this stark, dank valley you'll arise to fight my fight. I have called you to the nations, my plans are still in place. This darkness will turn in to dawn. Let me hold you. Seek my face.

SHEIR

00:08:29
For more on Geraldine Buckley and to find links to her blog, visit our website, metroconnection.org. And by the way, this story came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on topics we're covering. You can learn more about the network by visiting metroconnection.org/pin.
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