Dr. John Rottman’s Calvin Prison Initiative Convocation Address

Calvin Seminary professor John Rottman delivered the Convocation address: “I could feel the tension my neck as we drove up to the prison gate...But that week in Angola changed my life. To see human life flourish inside prison amazed me.”

     In October of 2010 God tricked me into spending my entire reading week in prison.  One of the supporters of Calvin Seminary had sent ten or twelve thousand dollars to allow ten or so students to visit Angola Prison down in Louisiana.  At the time I had been inside a prison exactly once and had little desire to visit again.  My guess most of you can understand my feelings about this.  So when one of my colleagues asked me if I wanted to go to Angola Prison, I said, no, but I have student who might want to go along.

     Steve, one of my students, was interested in prison work and had been an inmate himself some years before at Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois.  When I called to see if he wanted to visit Angola, he said, well maybe, are you going?  And I said, well, I don’t know. And he said, well, I’ll go if you do.  Ok checkmate.  I didn’t want to stand in his way, so I agreed to go.  Of course I kicked myself the rest of the day wondering how I was going to explain the trip to my wife, Marilyn.  You did what?  Who in their right mind would choose to spend a week in a maximum security prison in Louisiana?

     After I agreed to go, I wondered what prison would be like.  I worried if it would be dangerous.  I had heard about Angola, was once called the bloodiest prison in the South.  True, I’d also heard about changes there too and a seminary program, but I didn’t know what to expect.  Prison after all,  is prison.  A few months later, I could feel the tension my neck as we drove up to the prison gate in the middle of nowhere Louisiana.

      But that week in Angola changed my life.  I spent time visiting with inmates, teaching a bit in their stuffy classroom with more than one hundred students.  I went to worship there, visited death row, and saw their hospice program.  The warden trumpeted the changes at Angola, and pointed to the B.A. program offered by New Orleans Baptist Seminary as the key factor.  You can see the sort of moral rehabilitation that has happened here, he drawled.  I tell the men here,” I’ll love you as much as you let me, I’ll hurt you as much as I have to.”  Well, the place did seem changed, the inmates, the vocational programs, the security staff.  Violence had dropped by seventy-five percent since the B.A. program started.  And while percentages only give a wide-angle look, I met person after person whose lives seemed to have been profoundly turned around.  My student Steve was especially aware of how different Angola was than Marion so many years before.  Seeing the place through his eyes deepened my appreciation for what Angola had apparently become.  To see human life flourish inside prison amazed me.

      On plane back to Grand Rapids, I sat next to Steve.  Wouldn’t it be great, I enthused, if we could see a program like that start on one of the Michigan prisons?  Yeah, he said, catching me up short.  That will never happen.  Michigan prisons are locked up so tight that you could never get a foot in the door.  And then, he added, “so don’t even think about it.”  Well, I thought, it was a nice idea nevertheless.   I turned my energy to other things.

      But then a few months later in the spring of 2011, six inmates at Handlon wrote to Calvin Seminary asking if we could perhaps offer one of our certificate programs at here at MTU.  Ronald Feenstra, our Dean,  wrote a letter to the warden here and asked whether anything like that might be possible.  The former warden, Warden  Prelesnik later told us that he had no idea what to do with such an odd request.  No seminary has ever offered programing at a Michigan prison before.  So what to do?  He told us that he pushed the letter from one side of his desk to the other for several weeks.  Finally, he asked the visiting DOC what to do with it and to his surprise got permission to try letting Calvin Seminary do a course once in awhile.  That was in August 2011.

      And after that we continued to get lucky….or maybe it was God.  I’ll let you chose your own take on it.    But today we are celebrating our first year of a fully accredited Bachelor of Arts program jointly sponsored by Calvin College and Seminary.  What started out as a bit of a vague pipe dream has emerged into reality thanks to creativity in the DOC, the generosity of donors, hours of work by David Rylaarsdam, and the willingness of these men to serve as guinea pigs in our first year class.   Call it God or luck, but seeing the possibility for deep and lasting change here prompts each of us to gratitude.  The possibility of seeing people who are no longer defined mostly by the worst things that they have done in life, provokes hope in us, doesn’t it?….hope for the men…for their families…for their victims…for correctional officers…hope for our prisons  and especially for the communities to which many of these citizens will return.

      I don’t really have much advice for you today, but speaking for us at Calvin, and I suppose for many of you, I will say how thankful we are to God for this program and the wonderful results and potential it holds.  Thankful too for the enhancement and enrichment of life that we have already begun to see.  I am so glad that I am able to celebrate with all of you and especially with our pioneering group of students here today.   May God bless us, now and into the future.