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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 on Nov. 11, 2004. And "Sister Geraldine," as the inmates called her, didn't just "walk" in to the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown; she walked in to teach poetry.
Though she didn't know it then, a few years later, she would become NCTC's chaplain.
"I'd gone in and prayed for the last chaplain on his last day," she says. "I had no idea I was going to be the chaplain at this point. I just prayed that God would protect the church, and that only the chaplain God wanted to come in would come in.
"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!"
Buckley is ordained with Faith Christian Fellowship, which she describes as "strong on the word, strong on the moving of the Holy Spirit." But she says she began telling stories long before she found religion.
"I've always been passionate about creativity," she says. "I've done creative stuff since I was knee-high."
That "creative stuff" includes radio DJing, 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.
"I know I'm a very unlikely slam poet," she says with a laugh, "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.
Buckley suspected she'd need all the "audience skills" she could muster when she led that first poetry workshop at MCTC. And yet by the end of the session, she says all the men were freely sharing their feelings, thoughts and words. It wasn't long before Buckley returned to lead more workshops, again and again and again.
"Creativity is powerful!" she says. "We all need it. I mean, when I see how those men responded... I'd get to them to write sonnets! Just for fun, we'd go through all these poetry forms, and they were brilliant!"
And not just "brilliant," Buckley says, but potentially more peaceful.
"There are enormous surveys that show if prisoners do creativity, there is an enormous decline in prison violence," she says.
And while violence is going down, things like confidence, she says, are going up. "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," she explains.
Leading, counseling, teaching
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."
"It's not like doing a production anywhere else, [where] you have dress rehearsals and you have tech rehearsals," she says. "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...!'"
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.
"I saw who these men were," she explains. "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."
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, found a new chance to express themselves — who they really were, and who they really wanted to be.
"All I was doing was just encouraging," she says. "It's taking pain out so healing can come in. If you get all the noise out, you suddenly realize, 'I have potential, even if I'm behind the bars.'"
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.
"I went into an alternative school for children who are one step away from being in prison, teaching them to tell stories. So I'm starting to look at doing more of that," she says.
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.
The show ends with a poem Buckley wrote right after leading that first poetry workshop at the Maryland Correctional Training Center. It's called "Do Not Think":
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
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.
[Music: "Tea For Two" by Chico Hamilton Quintet from The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet]
Photos: Former Prison Chaplain