Like you, I get a number of emails each and every day. Most get trashed or archived, some get a brief response. I try to deal with them as they come, much like the Whack-A-Mole game: keep them under control and start the routine all over the next day.
But on December 17, 2013, I received an email that was hardly routine:
In reviewing the prison based seminary concept as a means of controlling violence in correctional facilities, it was my thought we should explore how this might work in Michigan. The purpose of my email is to ask if you and your staff might put together a rough draft of how this might work.
It was from the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections at the time, Daniel Heyns. He had taken a trip to Angola prison with Calvin Seminary faculty and seen the transformational effect of an education program at the prison there. This wasn’t one to archive, or quickly tick off a response; this email launched us on a journey that would culminate in the Calvin Prison Initiative.
There were many more emails, and many signs of God’s faithfulness along the way! We are grateful for a Chicago area donor that supplied funds so that faculty members and students could visit Angola Prison in Louisiana; for a professor and Academic Dean who consistently and persistently asked how Calvin Theological Seminary could offer courses at Handlon prison; for a catalytic gift that allowed Professor David Rylaarsdam to study educational and ministry projects at a number of prisons that eventually led to the development of this Initiative.
In a joint letter emailed to the Calvin Seminary and Calvin College communities, Calvin College President Michael Le Roy and myself announced the recent accreditation of the Calvin Prison Initiative. You’ll find the full text of that letter below. You’ll also find a news article on the Calvin College website that takes a look at the way Calvin is providing education and training behind prison walls at Handlon Prison in Ionia, Michigan.
As you read more about this initiative, I want you to hear the creak of prison doors that were and are opening. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but over 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Over 2 billion dollars a year goes out from the State of Michigan to the state prison system. I am hopeful that the Calvin Prison Initiative is the beginning of something that other states, provinces, and prison systems will be closely watching, and maybe even emulating.
It’s likely that you got to this little note from an email. Thanks for reflecting on the ways God is using Calvin and the CPI students as instruments of individual and societal transformation. Thank you also for praying for God’s provision and for His protection as we take this step of faith in keeping with the biblical injunction to “visit the prisoner”. You never know how God can use an email!
In His Service with You,
From a February 17 email to the Calvin College and Seminary communities:
We are pleased to announce the accreditation of the Calvin Prison Initiative, an endeavor that each year gives 20 inmates from the state of Michigan an opportunity to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in ministry leadership. The students take classes in ministry and theology as well as Calvin’s liberal arts core courses. Inmates from any of the 31 prisons in the Michigan Department of Corrections system can apply to the program, and each August admitted students are transferred to Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia to begin their education.
We are thankful to report that our first cohort of students began this past September, completed three courses this fall, and have now begun their second semester in the program. It is clear that teaching and mentoring at Handlon has been a transformative experience for our faculty and students from the Knollcrest campus. And our students at Handlon say this opportunity has provided them with something that is in short supply behind bars: hope.
We would encourage you to read an informative article on the Calvin College website to learn more about how this program took root, the impact it is having on the class of 2020 at Handlon, and how program leaders and those within the department of corrections see this initiative contributing to culture change within the system.
There are so many reasons that we, as a seminary and as a college, are partnering in this effort. We recognize that God has called us to this work, and we see how this initiative aligns with the mission of each of our institutions. To see faculty, students and donors standing behind this effort demonstrates that renewal is possible wherever God’s light shines.
Please join us in gratitude to a God who believes in redemption and for the faculty, students, staff, donors and prison leaders who have been the hands and feet making this possible.
Michael K. Le Roy, Calvin College president
Julius T. Medenblik, Calvin Theological Seminary president