Prison chaplain: Hope know no bounds

Barbara Hootman

The Rev. Shannon Spencer is the new part-time chaplain at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, tending the 360 inmates housed in the minimum-security prison.

Assistant chaplain Shannon Spencer enters the women's prison with Carol Dalton, chaplain

Spencer, who began June 1, fills in for Chaplain Lynn Michie, who tendered her resignation last fall after 11 years of  service at the prison. Michie  returned to the academic world to study and then work as a counselor for middle school students. 

For months board of directors of the Ministry of Hope Chaplaincy Program, which oversees the prison chaplains, worked to determine how best to fill the vacancy that Michie left.  It decided a part-time office assistant and a half-time chaplain who complemented the skills of Chaplain Carol Dalton would free both chaplains to focus on the duties of providing pastoral care and spiritual guidance to the prison population.

Spencer, who works 20 hours a week at the prison, is experienced in prison ministry.

“I minister to the inmates personally by creating a scared space for them to be who they are, where they are and to say what they need to say,” Spencer said. “I let them know that trusting God is still possible."

Whitt said in an email that board members are delighted with Spencer.

“We had a number of exceptionally strong candidates apply for the position," Whitt said in an email, "but Shannon was a unanimous choice from the several interviewing committees.  She is well known in the Buncombe County community and possesses that special ability to connect with different personalities.  We look forward to a long and positive relationship with her and believe she will immediately begin to make a difference in the lives of inmates and staff at SCCW.”

Spencer, a native of Western North Carolina, moved back here in 2008 from California.

Assistant chaplain Shannon Spencer cuts up in the chapel at Swannanoa Correction Center for Women

“I love California," she said, "but this is home and where I wanted to be. I have a partner and two children (girls), and I wanted them to grow up in Western North Carolina.” Spencer grew up in Western North Carolina.

While pastoring a church in California, Spencer started a jail ministry team to serve female prisoners at two prisons which led  to her serving as chaplain for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department.

“I have had many teachers along the way, some living in gated communities while others were behind the gates of prisons and jails," she told the Ministry of Hope board of directors during her interview process.  "It’s been a beautifully broken journey framed by abundant grace and radical love.”

Spencer has also served churches in Illinois and North Carolina.

“After I had my second child, I took a break from paid ministry and started a nonprofit organization in Asheville called Asheville Poverty Initiative,” she said.  “We have started a free food site called 12 Baskets Café (in West Asheville)  where we repurpose food donated by local organizations that would have been thrown away.  It is quality food pulled from nightly hot bars, buffets and grocery store displays. Lunch is from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. weekdays, and folks from all walks of life eat together free.  We are all hungry for something, and sharing food helps break down barriers. Working with 12 Baskets Café makes the 20 hours a week at the women prison workable for me.  I am very happy with the part-time schedule.”

Spencer 's love of travel has led her to Central America nine times. She has backpacked across Europe and  lived  in South Africa.  Her education includes a bachelor of science degree in special education from Appalachian State University and a master of divinity from Duke  Divinity School. She is working on a doctorate degree at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She hopes to graduate in December 2017.  She is already an experienced ordained United Church of Christ pastor.

“I want to be a voice even for those who don’t listen when I say that they are good and (that) there is more to life than just being in prison,” Spencer said.  “I am excited about the part-time chaplain job.  It is a privilege to there.  It is a privilege to be invited into someone’s life who has never trusted and if they did trust, they were hurt.”