Theological studies ignited transformation of Georgia woman set to die

By Nan Ross
Posted Mar 2, 2015
Dr. Jürgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and the Rev. Cathy Zappa at Gissendaner's graduation from Theological Certificate Program. Photo: Diocese of Atlanta

Dr. Jürgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and the Rev. Cathy Zappa at Gissendaner’s graduation from Theological Certificate Program. Photo: Diocese of Atlanta

Editor’s note: Georgia Department of Correction officials postponed Kelly Renee Gissendaner’s execution at the last moment March 2 when they became concerned about the purity of the execution drug. No new date has been given, according to the Associated Press.

[Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta] An untold story about convicted murderer Kelly Renee Gissendaner is that she is loved and admired by many inmates and others who serve at Lee Arrendale State Prison north of Atlanta.

Gissendaner, 47, a graduate of a prison-based theology certificate program, is set to become on March 2 the first woman to be executed in Georgia since 1945.

“Kelly has changed; she’s been transformed,” says the Rev. Cathy Zappa, a Diocese of Atlanta priest who has served as Gissendaner’s teacher, spiritual director and chaplain for nearly four years. “Though far from perfect, she is making a positive difference in the prison and beyond.”

Zappa directs the Certificate in Theological Studies program at the prison on behalf of four seminaries that are members of the Atlanta Theological Association. She also serves as canon for spirituality and mission at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta.

“Yes, she is remorseful,” says Zappa of Gissendaner, who was found guilty of planning her husband Douglas Gissendaner’s 1997 murder. “But she can’t take back what she’s done.

“Kelly’s death will only cause more harm,” Zappa said, “to her friends in prison, to her three children who don’t want to lose their mother. She is changed and transformed and only wants to offer something back to her community.”

Speaking out in Gissendaner’s defense, Zappa said, “She has tried to make amends in the way she has lived her life, to work for healing and reconciliation. And she has started living her life in a way that shows penitence for her husband’s death and honors her children, who are also victims of her crime.”

Zappa was one of several people who on Feb. 25 addressed the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles at a hearing to request clemency for Gissendaner. The board denied the request. Her execution, previously scheduled for later that day, was postponed until March 2 because of bad weather.

Zappa told the board that Gissendaner “has had an uplifting impact on my life, on people in the theology program and on other inmates. She has chosen to thrive, as both a person and a Christian, during her incarceration and her death sentence.

“Rather than succumbing to bitterness, despair or a sense of victimization, Kelly has become a compassionate, reflective, spiritual and authentic human being. She’s committed to living life to the fullest and to being a blessing in whatever way she can to others in her world.”

One of the people in her world is internationally renowned author and professor of systematic theology Jürgen Moltmann of the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Gissandaner wrote to him after reading one of his books for her theology foundations course work. They became pen pals, and Moltmann came to visit her and spoke at the certificate program’s 2011 commencement.

“Kelly said about their correspondence that she wanted Dr. Moltmann to know how much she’d learned from him,” said Zappa. “He wrote back and said how much he’s learned from her. He sent her a handkerchief, which he said was to hold all her tears.”

Many of the women in the theology program look up to Gissendaner and see her as a source of inspiration, hope, and strength. “Over and over,” said Zappa, “I hear phrases like, ‘If Kelly can handle that, then I can handle this,’ or ‘If Kelly can keep faith or stay strong, then so can I.’”

When Gissendaner graduated from the theology certificate program in October 2011, she was chosen as the student speaker.

From the start of her course work, she said, “Never have I had a hunger like this. I became so hungry for theology, and what all the classes had to offer, you could call me a glutton. I’ve now added in thirst for the accomplishment of my dream to continue the study of theology.

“I challenge you to step up the next level of your character, growth, and development,” she told them. “In all of us, there are untapped abilities. I encourage you to write that book, start that ministry, teach, study, pursue your dream.”

Gissendaner went on to remind them that “suffering can be redeemed. There is only One who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean, or turn a tragedy into a triumph, and a loser into a winner. When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted. When blind eyes are opened, then we all will see the greater purpose. Let us put off hatred and envy and put on love and compassion. Every day.”

In the three years since graduating, Gissendaner continued to take every theology course that was offered at the prison until her final appeal was denied.

On Feb. 27, a letter asking government officials to reconsider sparing Kelly’s life was signed by Atlanta Bishop Rob Wright and is being distributed throughout the state. To read the letter, click here.

Four participating member schools of the Atlanta Theological Association, which sponsors the Certificate in Theological Studies program, are Candler School of Theology at Emory University, McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Columbia Theological Seminary.

— Nan Ross is director of communications for the Diocese of Atlanta.

Comments (3)

  1. John Andrews says:

    Supreme Court of Georgia has denied Kelly’s appeal. Prayers for time she has left and prayers for her family. Vigil tonight on the square in Clarkesville, Ga at 6:00. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

    1. The Rev. Mary Janet "Bean" Murray says:

      Thank you for information on this denial. Prayers for her,those who love her, and for forgiving hearts.

  2. The Rev. Susan Creighton says:

    Justice may be blind, but it is not always merciful. It certainly sounds as if repentance is genuine and deep. One might think both justice and mercy would be well-served is Kelly’s death sentence were (at the least) commuted to a life sentence. Lord, have mercy.

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