Calvin Theological Seminary recently held a two-day video conference that focused on loving our neighbors who are in prison or who have been released from prison into a society, said conference leaders, that has little to offer them.
In follow-up promotional material, the seminary described the conference, saying, “This year's conference provided information on the current state of the North American prison system, biblical insight regarding care for the incarcerated, a look into the Calvin Prison Initiative, and practical ideas for ministering to the incarcerated, those reentering society, and their families.”
Titled “Loving Your Neighbor 2020,” the conference was offered virtually because of the need to stay home during COVID-19. Even though the conference was online, it offered a wide scope of presentations that helped participants wrestle with tough issues about racism in the prison system, discussed the value that education brings to people in prison in prison, and offered stories of those who have prospered after being able to attend classes in prison.
Jul Medenblik, president of the seminary, said he is grateful that this conference could focus on the work being done in prisons, including the Calvin Prison Initiative’s work.
Ministry to and with people who are incarcerated is vital, he said, especially in this time in which COVID-19 continues to infect people, our economic situation is shaky, and — because of protests that have swept the world since the death if George Floyd in Minneapolis — this is a time in which racial inequities have become abundantly clear in our culture.
“In offering this conference,” Medenblik said, “we do so because our hearts want to listen and learn about the lives of people made in the image of God who are in prisons.”
The conference featured plenary presentations by Rev. Dominique DuBois Gilliard, the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy, Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. A former pastor of a church in West Oakland, Calif., he serves on the boards of directors for the Christian Community Development Association and Evangelicals for Justice.
Others who spoke at the conference included Todd Cioffi, director of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), which offers a Bachelor of Arts degree at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. In one segment he interviewed Dewayne Burton, the warden at Handlon, about the value of prisoners receiving an education and a degree behind bars.
Also featured was Gary Burge, a seminary professor who has taught at the prison in Handlon and who helped to moderate a panel discussion about the CPI with others who have taught in the program.
Rev. Bob Arbogast, pastor of the Celebration CRC at Handlon prison, participated as well by opening the second day of the conference with devotions. Following his prayer, the choir at Handlon sang “Amazing Grace.”
See the Mission Field
In his plenary talk on Monday morning, July 6, Gilliard said prisons are an open mission field for the church; men and women behind bars are hungry to learn more about God’s Word.
“It is not a question of a prisoner’s ability to learn, but having access to an education that can help them thrive and flourish,” he said.
Too often, Gilliard added, prisoners are ignored. They are a voiceless group; very few people on the outside speak on their behalf — and this is where individual churches can come in.
“People in prison have been stripped of using their democratic voice to shine a light on the conditions and challenges inmates encounter,” said Gilliard. “Think about this: Jesus was incarcerated before his death . . . Jesus was in the midst of a broken system” — and Christ invited his followers to step in to be a voice for the voiceless.
The criminal justice system in the U.S., said Gilliard, has turned into a multimillion-dollar industry run in many places by private corporations.
And except for in a few, scattered cases, the system doesn’t seek to rehabilitate prisoners to prepare them with the skills needed when they are released. Rather, prisons are mostly warehouses for people whom society prefers to pretend aren’t there.
In essence, this is a massive system of racial and societal control, said Gilliard. “What we have now is a system in which our brothers and sisters are being debased daily,” he said.
Churches need to become aware of what is happening behind prison walls “and stand up for the vulnerable.” Churches, said Gilliard, can find ways to connect with inmates — not easy to do during a pandemic — but churches can write letters to prisoners they may know, reach out to their families, and read books and watch movies that can help them become more aware of the system’s problems.
“We all have a role to play in creating an equitable, just, and humane criminal justice system,” said Gilliard, who spent a portion of his talk going over the history of racism in the U.S. and citing statistics that show the ongoing disparity between the races that occurs yet today.
“Our labors are for the Lord, who is already at work in prisons and is inviting you to join God’s work behind bars,” said Gilliard.
Another element of Christians’ assuming responsibility to care for prisoners is the creation of programs and opportunities to help ex-offenders make their way back into society upon release.
“We need to help the church be present in the criminal justice system and advocate for the needs” of people in prison, said Glliard. “We must be there to call for reform of the system and awaken others to the need for reform.”
Gilliard also spoke of the importance of society to properly educate young people from diverse backgrounds, to lobby against legislation that only continues to oppress the people behind bars, and to learn more about and enter into areas of what is called restorative justice.
Our current system, in and of itself, harbors racial disparities in which a large percentage of people of color far outweigh the number of white people in jail. Currently, he added, the criminal justice system is based on a punishment model — put someone behind bars and throw away the key.
But there is another approach, and it is gaining traction in other countries such as New Zealand, South Africa, and Rwanda.
“In establishing restorative justice circles, the offender often meets face to face with people who have been violated by the inmate’s crime.
“In this approach,” said Gilliard, “people on all sides of the crime — and the crime may be immense with many feelings emerging — to speak honestly about how the crime affected them.”
Meanwhile, offenders have a chance to listen and often to speak about their own feelings. The idea is to bring the sides together. Often they meet in a circle, and people speak when it is their turn.
“This approach can help our brothers and sisters who are trying to turn the page in their life,” said Gilliard. “The gospel calls us to this, to intervene and show God’s love and mercy to people experiencing deep brokenness in prison” and in society at large.
Stories about Transformation
In his interview with Dewayne Burton, Todd Cioffi asked the Handlon warden if he had a story to relate, showing the value of education behind bars.
About five years ago, Burton said, he walked in on a CPI class in which students were giving a speech. One of the men, Patrick, gave a speech that was one of the worst he’d ever heard, said Burton.
But the inmate kept at it, taking classes through CPI, and five years later he is serving as a mentor to other inmates.
“That man was completely transformed. In five years he has come a long way. There is now a self-confidence about him that is quite remarkable,” said Burton.
Patrick’s story highlights for him the power of education and how it can play a big role in helping a person reintegrate into life after prison.
Another story also sticks with Cioffi, he said, because he sees God’s grace in it.
One of the students who enrolled in the CPI program a few years ago couldn’t read or write. His frustration was obvious, but so was his dedication and perseverance.
He worked hard, immersing himself in classes. And slowly he became literate, which in and of itself was an accomplishment.
But not only that, said Cioffi — today “he is our librarian.”
The entire video conference, which works to unveil the challenges in the current criminal justice system — as well as opportunities for prisoners to grow — is available for viewing here.