Robert Parham recently interviewed former president Jimmy Carter on Christians’ moral responsibility regarding just treatment of prisoners.
Carter lamented that Christians are often more focused on retribution than on soul care of inmates.
Carter said that Christians can “reduce the [focus on] punishment and emphasize the rehabilitation and forgiveness and love that we need to extend to people in prison.”
Beginning in the 2011-12 academic year, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, made a step in that direction.
The seminary began offering the bachelor of science degree in biblical studies at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas.
The degree being offered is a four-year, fully accredited (by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges) degree that seeks to train students to serve as inmate-pastors, chaplains, counselors and teachers.
To be eligible for acceptance into the program, inmates must have a high school diploma or GED.
They must have at least 10 years in their sentence before they are eligible for parole. That means the degree program is not designed for a free-world ministry, but is meant to serve the needs of the prison population.
Equally important, applicants must have a demonstrable desire to serve others and a record free of major infractions for at least one year.
Thirty-nine students matriculated into the program in 2011.
Another 40 students will begin classes this year. The professors this semester (Brad Heller, Stephen Presley, Richard Gunasekera, Denny Autrey, Ira Jones and me) are provided and compensated by Southwestern.
The 2011-12 school year was a tremendous success, with an overall grade average for the class of 2015 in the B/B+ range.
The program is funded privately. The Heart of Texas Foundation sponsors the program with funds raised from the Southern Baptists of Texas and many churches and private individuals.
The program is Bible based, but it is not designed as a tool for Baptist proselytizing. Students representing any or no faith are invited to apply for admission.
There are Christians from many denominations. Presently, most of the Christians are either non-denominational or Catholic. There are also Muslims and an Orthodox Jew in the school.
The students are already having a powerful impact at Darrington after only one year. They are taking ownership of the prison culture and inspiring other inmates to do the same.
Former members of rival gangs are beginning to come together in prayer and reconciliation. The students are individually ministering to their peers, offering encouragement and hope to persons in a place where those things are hard to come by.
The vision for the Darrington extension is this: The graduates of the program will go to other prison units across Texas to minister and serve the more than 150,000 inmates within the Texas prison system.
They will be trained by experts in fields of theology, biblical studies, history, English, science and pastoral care in a rigorous, biblically based curriculum.
But every student is already in possession of the key element in making a difference as salt and light in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – an intense desire to serve others.
I teach history in the extension. After working with students as a teacher and a pastor since 1992, I have seldom encountered students with such a fervent desire to learn, to be challenged and to sharpen their disciplines to do what is right.
What is also striking about the students at Darrington is their level of respect for me and for the course material. When I walk into class, I feel like a celebrity!
They are, to a man, exceptionally deferential to me, eager for each day’s three-hour class and fervent about taking what they have learned and using it in creative ways for the benefit of their prison culture.
They are some of the most inspiring people with whom I have ever shared company.
We don’t know what impact the graduates of the Darrington extension will have on Texas prisons. Our first class graduates in three years.
But already we are seeing hints of what will likely be the makings of a cultural and spiritual transformation in the prisons of Texas.
Perhaps God will engineer a spiritual renewal in the nation through this unlikely medium, for he has used stranger mechanisms in bringing glory to his name.
John D. Wilsey is assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of “One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America” and blogs at ToBreatheYourFreeAir.com.