Candler students answer the <br /> question, 'What does your faith <br /> tradition say about justice and mercy?'Third-year Candler MDiv student Cassandra Henderson first met Kelly Gissendaner in December 2012. That day, the two women sat and talked for more than an hour. “Kelly was hospitable, gracious, kind and open,” Henderson recalls. “From time to time, I noticed tears welling in her eyes. Despite her circumstances, we shared smiles and some laughter.”

This was not a typical coffee shop chat. In her first year at Candler, Henderson worked at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Georgia, for her Contextual Education placement. Gissendaner, an inmate at Arrendale, was the only female in Georgia on death row. In 1998, she had been convicted of plotting the 1997 murder of her husband, a plan that was carried out by her boyfriend.

During that first conversation, more than 15 years after Gissendaner’s conviction, Henderson remembers that Kelly spoke about her children, prison life, death row, her faith, and the classes she’d taken in the prison’s theology certificate program. The theology certificate program is a yearlong course of study offered to Arrendale’s inmates and taught by students and faculty from Candler and a consortium of other Atlanta area seminaries. Candler Associate Professor of Christian Ethics Elizabeth Bounds co-founded the program in 2009 with Candler alumna Susan Bishop, the prison’s chaplain. Kelly Gissendaner graduated from the program in 2011 and was chosen by her classmates to give their commencement address.

In her speech, Gissendaner said: “The theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that, despite a gate or a guillotine hovering over my head, I still possess the ability to prove that I am human. …I have placed my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Through the Contextual Education program, many Candler students worked with Gissendaner and witnessed her transformation. And in the lead-up to her planned execution on March 2 – after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had denied her request for clemency – the Candler community sprang into action.

“In the midst of a media whirl, Candler people lived out their faith pastorally and prophetically,” says Bounds. “Alumni and students were part of the official request for clemency, and worked with media to present a fuller portrait of who Kelly had become in prison, taking responsibility for the murder she had planned and acting out of a new understanding of redemption and compassionate love.” Students and alumni wrote online op-eds, made videos, circulated petitions, and organized vigils. In the days prior to the planned execution, the New York Times and other major news outlets picked up Gissendaner’s story.

Brenna Lakeson, a second-year MDiv student, does not know Gissendaner personally, but felt called to new purpose by her story. “I want to be able to look back and say I did everything I could to try and save her life. Seeing students, professors and administrators united so fully was incredibly empowering. To me, this is what the church is supposed to be all the time: united and working for justice.”

Henderson echoes Lakeson’s vision of the church. She has been one of the students most involved in advocating Gissendaner’s case, drawing attention to the story and helping to gather and deliver over 40,000 petition signatures to Governor Nathan Deal’s office at the state capitol in an attempt to stop the execution. “All of us have worked tirelessly, side by side. We brought whatever skills and connections we had to the table without judgment or exclusion. All were welcome and all were needed. Students, faculty, lawyers, advocates, clergy and the media, all races, all genders, all ages – all of us worked together and became the church.”

Candler’s Robert M. Franklin, Jr. has observed the community’s support of Gissendaner from his role as the inaugural James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership. “The eyes of the nation are on Candler students, who humbly but confidently represented faith, hope, and love in the public square,” he says. “They have demonstrated best practices of moral leadership: offering pastoral support to the Gissendaner family, public advocacy for a more humane outcome and sentence, raising public awareness and mass mobilization through social media, and issuing a call to worship and prayer for justice with mercy, all in a crisis environment. I couldn't be more proud of, and thankful for, them.”

Bounds recalls the vigil held on campus the night before the scheduled execution, where around 200 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members – including two of Kelly Gissendaner’s grown children – sang and prayed for Gissendaner, her family, and the family of Doug Gissendaner. “When Kelly’s children had what they thought would be their last visit with their mother the following morning, they were able to share the words and prayers of the Candler community,” she says.

On the night of March 2, Candler students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered on the steps of the state capitol in Atlanta and outside Jackson State Prison near Macon, where the execution was to take place. When they received the news that Gissendaner’s execution had been postponed due to concerns about the drugs to be used in the lethal injection, they rejoiced. And now, with renewed energy, they move forward in the fight for Gissendaner’s life. Georgia has put a temporary moratorium on all executions as the state determines the safety and effectiveness of its execution drugs, and Gissendaner’s lawyers have filed a civil lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections. No matter what comes next, there is no doubt that the people of Candler School of Theology will continue to advocate for Gissendaner and the power of redemption.

Says Henderson: “Kelly’s story put our faith to the test, and forced us to come face to face with what we proclaim as truth: that the salvation of Christ is available to all, and redemption is excluded from none. Candler, on all levels, has risen to the occasion.”