The following is part of a series of Interviews of Prisoners and Prison Ministers by William Barnwell. The first article in this series can be found here.

“We’re called to find in everyone that innocent child we were created to be and to speak

 to that child.”

February 18, 2012


WHB: Deacon Cindy Obier and I are having a conversation here at Trinity Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. A deacon is one of the clergy orders in the Episcopal Church: there are bishops, priests, and deacons. Like the first seven deacons in Acts 6, deacons have a special role of serving those outside of the church as well as those inside.

Talk some, Cindy, about your growing-up years and how your dad was so influential in your life. Tell us about your Kairos experience at the women’s prison at St. Gabriel’s and your experience with the DOCC ministries at Angola Penitentiary these past ten years. [DOCC stands for the Episcopal program called Disciples of Christ in Community. It is a national program that helps individual parishes build what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”] And talk about your ministry on Death Row.

William Barnwell

I grew up in the church at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Hammond, Louisiana. I was born in Alabama but moved to Hammond at age five. My parents were both very active in the church. The big event in our church was the Christmas bazaar and the Gumbo Suppers. I also went regularly to Sunday School. I just enjoyed everything about church. The fact that they had doughnuts at the church helped—I always call myself “a Doughnut Christian.” Daddy would never make me go to church, but he would come in and say, “You know, there’s going to be doughnuts!” So I’d hurry up and get ready.

Daddy was very influential in the faith I learned; I asked him three things. The first was, “Can black people and white people get married?” Maybe I was testing my dad. My dad was a racist. I knew how he would answer that question. But Daddy said, “There’s nothing in the Bible that says that people of different races can’t marry.” That was very surprising to me. Although he was a racist and raised in an environment that encouraged that, he didn’t want that for me. He didn’t want me to “turn out” the way he had.

WHB: We call that agape.

Yes, he wanted me to have the opportunity to think for myself, and to think outside his experience. My second question was, “Can women be priests?” Again, I absolutely knew how Daddy was going to answer that. He was staunch and traditional. But he said, “God will choose.” From that I understood that women were loved by God and used by God in whatever way God decided.

The third question I asked him years later was whether or not he believed in the death penalty. His answer to me would be very influential. Again, Daddy had been in World War II and he was an angry, judgmental person at times. He was the disciplinarian in our home. I thought he’d be in favor of the death penalty—particularly because of the way he had always protected our family from any outside harm. He told me that, no, only God had the right to take life! God gave life and only God had the right to take it back.

I gradually became very interested in people who lived in prison, and what their God-given rights were; and how beloved they were as individuals to God. At a really young age, in high school, we’d have philosophical debates. And in college that continued. I was able to continue to think about issues like the death penalty and learn to debate them. I was really interested in people who live in prison, their ability to repent, and reform their lives and do God’s work.

After high school I went to Louisiana State University. I became an architect. I met my husband there, Bob. We traveled around the country, working: in New Orleans, Dallas, Boston. Then we came back to the Mississippi coast, to Ocean Springs. When I was working in Ocean, Springs I enrolled in EfM, the Education For Ministry class for four years. [This is the premier Episcopal Church four-year program that gives laypersons a seminary-like education.] I took the first two years there—the study of the Old Testament, and then the study of the New Testament.

At the end of those two years our mentor leader asked us to take a piece of paper and write down what we felt God was calling us to do. She said, “Don’t limit God to what you think. Just write down what God’s calling you to be.” I prayed about it, and wrote down that God was calling me to prison ministry. I thought that was kind of silly; I said to myself, “Parchman Farm [Mississippi State Penitentiary] is a long way from here. There’s no way I’m going to be able to get over there to do prison ministry.”

Then later that year Bob and I—as architects we had our own firm, but the economy dried up on us—we ran out of money, ran out of work and we moved in with Bob’s parents, who live in Baton Rouge. I was looking for a church and a job. I ended up in 1996 working for the state Fire Marshall’s office in Baton Rouge. I work with code enforcement and I also teach people how to build buildings that can accommodate persons with disabilities.

So the job is perfect—the best job of my life. I wanted to pick up my EfM program. Two churches were offering it, and I picked Trinity. The very first night, when someone was giving their spiritual autobiography, her first sentence was, “Well you all know that I do prison ministry.” I was overwhelme

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