This article appears in the News edition of the Calvin Seminary Forum
On May 9, 2022, Calvin Prison Initiative students participated in an extraordinary commencement ceremony at the Richard J. Handlon Correctional Facility. After two years of deferred graduations due to Covid-19, a gala event was held to honor the graduating classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Forty-six students were awarded bachelor’s degrees and thirty-two students were awarded associate’s degrees. There to applaud their achievements were nearly 300 family members, program staff and faculty, and government officials. According to Heidi Washington, Director of the Department of Corrections, the event was the largest of its kind ever to take place in a Michigan correctional facility.
Highlights of the program included poignant remarks by seminary president Jul Medenblik and university president Michael LeRoy, to reflect the fact that the Calvin Prison Initiative is a collaborative endeavor between Calvin Theological Seminary and Calvin University. The main address was given by seminary professor John Rottman, whom CPI Director Todd Cioffi described as “a hero of the CPI program.” Drawing on his perspective as one of the first people to advocate for and teach in the Calvin Prison Initiative program, Dr. Rottman told the story of how the program began, and described how God has been at work in the program’s continued growth.
Students made equally meaningful contributions to the ceremony. A student named Raymond eloquently summed up what makes the Calvin Prison Initiative unique, explaining that “other schools provide information, but CPI provides moral formation.” Another student, Patrick, agreed to be a featured speaker even though he was recently paroled. Participating in commencement meant that he had to re-enter the prison for a day—not an easy decision—but he was so determined to provide encouragement to his former classmates that he came and spoke enthusiastically about the gift of education. Still another student, David, composed an original song that expressed deep gratitude for a Calvin education, and his song was performed by the student choir.
After the ceremony, there was time for talking, laughing, and enjoying refreshments. “It doesn’t feel like we’re in prison,” remarked one corrections official, smiling as he surveyed the celebratory crowd. Students were having animated conversations with family members, friends, and professors. Michigan government and corrections officials were mingling with representatives from Calvin Theological Seminary and Calvin University.
To some observers, the prison may have seemed transformed for a day. But those who are involved with the Calvin Prison Initiative know that the program’s transformative power is long-lasting. By God’s grace, the program has the capacity to effect long-term positive change within individuals and institutions. That change is clearly evident in our CPI graduates, who have demonstrated through their academic achievement and servant leadership that with God all things are possible!