Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with an amazing minister on this blog. Today, we are thrilled to interview, Cari Willis. Cari IS what a minister looks like!
Cari tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
In 2004, during a worship service where the pastor was preaching on the Martha and Mary story, all I heard over and over again was “only one thing is needed.” I was a successful corporate manager working for a major corporation where I specialized in multi-tasking. I knew nothing about focusing on one thing. And yet God took a frying pan to my head and told me to “go love.” With tears streaming down my face, I knew what I had to do. I had to quit my job and follow Christ.
For the next year, I volunteered my time with a lot of non-profits. One of my favorite things was spending Mondays with my hospice patients. One woman in particular, someone I just called Ms. J., told me every Monday, “treasures in heaven, Cari. Treasures in heaven.” She wanted me to know that my corporate success was nothing compared to the treasures in heaven that I was building especially as I sat by her bedside and learned about the deep things of God.
I started seminary at Duke Divinity School in 2005. When you get your Masters of Divinity at Duke you have to have two field education placements. I told my field education supervisor that I felt called to be a hospice chaplain. So, early one morning, she let me know that she had a hospice placement for me. All I heard was “hospice” and my heart soared and I was saying, “yes, yes” with great enthusiasm! My girlfriend who was with me was laughing hysterically – so much so that she fell to the ground. I asked her after the field ed supervisor walked away, “where is the hospice placement?” She could barely eke out the words, “in the federal prison.” “Oh no!” I exclaimed, “nothing about this does prisons” as I encircled my face with my finger over and over again. As God would have it though, just a few weeks later, I would be ministering at the hospice wards of the federal prison in Butner, NC. The experience changed the trajectory of my life and transformed this heart of mine. It was there that I would see Christ most clearly and learn about what real faith looks like.
I would go on to volunteer at the federal prison for many more years to come. I would even author my first book, “Living Into the Narrative of God,” with the help of many of the men I had met at the federal prison. It is a book that helps them, as well as any person wanting to deepen their devotional life, to integrate lectio divina practices into their daily Scripture reading.
Then in the summer of 2014, a lawyer from Virginia called me looking for a minister to visit her client on death row. At the time, I was unemployed and was homebound because of major surgery. I told her that I would find someone to see her client. Well after one hurdle after another hurdle the list of 20 people had narrowed down to one person – me! It would take 9 months of paperwork before I was cleared to see two of the eight men on the row in Virginia. My heart would be reshaped all over again from my friendships with the men that I would meet there. They helped me to see nuances of God that I just could not see. I promised my friends that I would not leave them and I meant it. This would mean watching one of my friends get executed by the state. The story of that night can be found in Sojourner’s magazine: https://sojo.net/articles/voiceless-grief-watching-my-friend-s-execution
Currently, I see the two men on the row in Virginia and six of the men on the row in North Carolina. I write to many more than that – men who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. Each friendship is a treasure to me. I have thanked God thousands of times that I get to know the men that I have befriended.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
My greatest joy is sitting and listening to the insights on God’s love and mercy that my friends on the row have. They have shown me facets of God that I could never see. We have laughed uproariously together and have broken down in sobs. They have welcomed me into their lives and trusted me from day one. They have shown me the “irrational” love of God.
The greatest day of my ministry was watching my friend, Ronnie Long, go free after 44 years of wrongful incarceration. Ronnie was not on death row, but was serving two life sentences for a crime he didn’t commit. The federal courts finally saw the overwhelming evidence that proved his innocence. I have been Ronnie’s pastoral caregiver for 5 years. And for all 5 of those years, my only prayer for him was “set him free. Set him free! Set Ronnie free!” I cried so much the evening that he walked out of the prison that I literally ran out of tears. Here is an article about his freedom: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article245524235.html
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
Prisons are never easy places to get into. I have learned to breathe in deeply when confronted with one new rule or one last minute change after another. I have learned to laugh and just roll with whatever I am confronted with. My greatest challenge right now is I can’t see my friends on the row in Virginia because of COVID19. I can e-mail them, but I cannot see them. This has been excruciating to me as it has been a little over 7 months since I have seen them.
Of course, the most difficult ministry moment was watching my very healthy and very beloved friend be executed by the state of Virginia. And yet, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat so he would know that he was greatly loved.
What is the best ministry advice you have received?
My Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Supervisor told me, “Cari, you are really good at dispensing grace, but you are awful at accepting it. Why is that?” Of course this made me sob! She was right! I had to learn to accept the grace that was being offered. My friends on the row are no different than everyone else – they want to know that their lives mattered. By fully embracing the grace they give me helps them to know that they have made a difference in someone else’s life.
Cari Willis is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship chaplain working with inmates.