Prepared for the Journey: Deanna Kabler
I was tapping my crimson nails on the steering wheel anxiously when he texted “Go on in. I’ll meet you inside.” My mind raced about my red polish as I grabbed my driver’s license and marched up to the gate house. I repeated the mantra to myself as I waited to hear the door click open. “Shoes off, dump my backpack in the bin, walk through the grey metal detector, spin in a circle in front of the magical metallic wand, then pat down.”
As I entered the gatehouse, I noticed the officer’s neon green acrylics and sighed with relief that I wasn’t going to get in trouble day one from the wrong polish choice. By the time I walked into the classroom and saw their smiling faces I had my nerves under control and actually felt comfortable. I processed that feeling of security, of confidence, of knowing something deeply, as I was introduced. It was strange and magnificent at the same time. I was standing inside a prison in front of 50 beaming faces. Men of all hue wearing the same garb. Brown pants. White tee-shirt. Brown over shirt. Their smiles were infectious and I realized immediately I was now in a place that God had be preparing me for since my beginnings.
I currently work as the Student Success Coordinator for the North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP) of The College at Southeastern. The program offers a four-year degree program in Pastoral Ministry and Counseling to men who are incarcerated and serving long-term to life sentences. Eligible candidates from North Carolina state prisons apply in the summer, are interviewed by an admissions committee, and if selected are transferred to Nash Correctional Institution (NCI) in Nashville, NC, for the resident educational degree program at the Nash County Extension Center (NCEC). Upon graduation, these men will be sent out to other prison facilities across the state to serve in a variety of roles from chaplain’s assistants to peer counselors.
We currently have 70 students enrolled across the junior, sophomore, and freshman cohorts. Students take all of the same courses as on campus students and professors teach on-site at NCI. My role serves as the navigator between students, professors, and prison administrators to facilitate overall student success. My day-to-day can bounce between handling IT issues in the classroom, running the NCEC Writing Center, assisting professors with our independent Moodle site, working with prison administrators to organize supplies or books, to tutoring individual students.
Many ask me what it must be like to work in a prison as a woman. But to be honest, my job is not really that different than other roles I have had in the past. I served in the Navy for eight years in a heavily male-dominated field. I also worked in ministry for more than 10 years whether in my local church or on the mission field overseas. So much of my past experiences prepared me for this work that it is clear God placed me in the right field at the right time. I have the opportunity to use my gifts in ways I never could have thought possible.
God has equipped me for such a unique role in a myriad of ways. I have often found myself through the years in leadership roles that required me to take charge and steer toward strategic purpose. The students in the program are uniquely situated with challenges students on campus don’t have. Many times, I assist students to overcome these challenges, providing a strategic vision as they learn, guiding them toward their purpose and calling from God. Working on the mission field prepared me to engage new cultures and to contextualize in the prison environment. Those years taught me how to be a good listener and learn from the culture around me which are crucial components to understanding the prison setting, life, and community. My time spent working in the on-campus Writing Center prepared me for seeing gaps and seeking new or creative ways to overcome challenges. Working in a prison environment requires this level of flexibility while remaining quick on your feet to troubleshoot the many changes that can occur on a daily basis. From my military background, I love structure, order, and a clear chain of command. Navigating from working on campus which is more relationally driven to a prison environment with its rules, regulations, and structures is also a God-given fit.
Serving and leading these students not only equips them for their future ministry but builds the beloved community of God as we grow together as sisters and brothers. I didn’t grow up dreaming I would one day be working in a prison. In fact, if you asked me 10 years ago what I would be doing in 2019, I would have answered something about homeschooling my children and working among Muslim peoples in the Middle East. Now as I look back, I see how our amazing God was orchestrating every event in my life, guiding me even when I couldn’t see the way, and encouraging me through all the past pain, past failure, past hurt, right to this moment. A moment where my life now intersects with a community that understands what it’s like to hurt and fail. So many of these students come from homes that were led by their mother or their grandmother or their aunt. I am blessed to now stand in the gap for them, empowering them through education, to fulfill their God-given calling to serve others.
Deanna Kabler is a graduate of The College at Southeastern and Liberty University with an M.A. in Professional Writing. She currently serves as the Student Success Coordinator for the Prison Program of The College at Southeastern. She hopes to begin the Ed.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Spring 2020 with an emphasis on Higher Education in Prison. She loves to write, read, and grow things.