I do not have a lot of experience with prisons. I’ve never been arrested – so long as you don’t count a little event when I was 21. It was midnight, and I was on the Syrian/Jordanian border in the desert. But that’s something that doesn’t count here and can remain for another telling. But prisons and arrests are as far from my consciousness as the Tibetan community of Chicago: I know they are there but I have no first-hand information about them.
It wasn’t till I came to Calvin Seminary in 2017 that my consciousness was singularly raised. In my first week, a new colleague named John Rottman stepped into my office and said, “You belong in prison.” This is an odd welcome to be sure and at that time I didn’t know that John was that rare person who could mix humor with a truth that was as arresting as a heart attack. John meant it. And from there he began to describe his many trips to Angola Prison in Louisiana (also known as the Alcatraz of the South). I’d heard that Angola was a maximum-security prison, the largest prison in the U.S., and I wondered what John was doing there. “Prison ministry,” John remarked, and this I figured was either a funny oxymoron or an invitation I should take seriously.
Of course, I knew the various passages in the Bible that referred to prisons and visiting them. I knew that visiting prisoners was one feature separating the sheep from the goats in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25). I knew that the earliest Christians frequented prisons as inmates and as supporters of those who had been taken away (Acts 5:18-25; 8:3; 12:4-6; 16:23-27, 40; Ephesians 3:1; Colossians 4:3; Philemon 1:1; Hebrews 10:34). Prison therefore was a common venue for Christian experience and Christian participation, modelled no doubt by Jesus himself who became a prisoner first to the Temple authorities and then to Pilate. I’ve always been intrigued by the stories of believing bystanders when Jesus ends up in custody: some flee for their lives (Mark 14:52), others remain in close proximity to him during his trial (Luke 22:54-58) and at the cross (Mark 15:40-41; John 19:25-27). Maybe spending time with prisoners is a test that really does sift the flock: the goats run for cover and the sheep head to Angola.
Eventually I met the leadership team for the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) that is based at the university. They are a visionary, energetic crew who are thoroughly evangelistic about their cause. They told me about Handlon Correctional Facility, about 30 minutes east of Grand Rapids in Ionia, Michigan. Interest in Handlon started when some Calvin Seminary faculty were granted permission to visit Angola Prison and observe a remarkable transformation that had come from ministry there (reducing inmate violence by 80%). They returned to Grand Rapids and concluded that something similar could work at Handlon. Seminary faculty began teaching non-accredited courses; and in 2015, in collaboration with Calvin University, the first class of 20 students began a fully-accredited educational program. Handlon, once known as “Gladiator School” among the inmates, was transformed in a handful of years into one of the safest prisons in the state. And Calvin was at the center of it.
But it was here among those visionary CPI staff that I heard this ministry framed in a way that had slipped past me. When confronted by an inquiring Jewish theologian about the central commitments of faith, Jesus rightly answered with the great creed of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But then Jesus did the odd thing: He added his own personal addendum. “And you should love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31; Leviticus 19:18). After sorting out our theological orientation (loving God rightly) he quickly tells us to locate and love our neighbor. His parable of the Good Samaritan is likely his defining story to describe neighbor identification and service. The CPI staff asked: Is the prisoner our neighbor? Are the men in Handlon our neighbors? I didn’t have a satisfying answer.
Within a few months I was signed up to teach a summer intensive class on the New Testament at Handlon. In spring we received a bit of training by the prison chaplain (but never went inside the prison). By June 2018 I was making my first solo drive to Handlon and for the first time in a long time, I felt nervous. I’m used to classes and unexpected setups for teaching. I had no way to imagine what was coming next.
Everyone has their first memories of entering prison, and I have mine. There are the continuous security checks, the grey-green paint on cinder block walls, the clanking of steel bars as they open and close, the drab uniforms, the razor-wire fences, the body searches. After making it through the first security barrier, you chat with a guard behind a bullet proof window who gives you a belt-worn alarm with a large red button. “In case something goes wrong in there or you’re scared, hit the button. We’ll find you and get you.” I’m not sure if he reassured me or added to my anxieties.
I then walked through another steel barrier and then out a normal glass door and onto the pavement that led across the prison yard. It felt like I’d entered a new world and the point of no return. I was now “inside.” I was ready for a menacing experience. But it didn’t happen.
The first thing that I saw was flowers. Flowers? Yes, flowers. I was dumbstruck. Landscaping is my hobby, and as I walked up the path to the classroom building I could see at once that I was viewing a sophisticated, extensive, and remarkable landscape garden filled with beauty. I literally stopped walking. How could this exist inside of a prison?
I stayed on the path that led me to the Calvin classroom building (built next to the prison vocational school). Two guards checked me in and pointed to my room. I walked past the Calvin library, made a quick visit, and was amazed at the caliber of books. Prisoners in blue and orange were walking down the hall and filling the library carrying laptops, books, and prominently, Bibles. Do I acknowledge them? Do I greet them? I was a novice at prison etiquette.
I arrived right on time for my first class and there looked out at 20 men sitting at desks. They could tell I was nervous but their ready smiles and laughter put me at ease. We introduced ourselves to each other and I was simply astounded by their friendliness, transparency, and readiness to take a college-level class. Simply put, I became friends with these men and they permanently changed how I think about prison and who populates them. I learned early on that they never heard their first names uttered by guards or most of their friends. It became a gift of grace to shake a man’s hand, look him in the eye, smile, and say, “It is good to see you, Christopher.” He became a full person when my classroom door closed and I built a new reality inside.
I have continued teaching summer courses at Handlon since then. And I’ve attended some of their graduation ceremonies. Each time I came away impressed with what I saw. My students were eager learners and the papers they wrote matched the caliber of what I’d seen among the thousands of undergraduates I had taught over the years. They read the textbook so thoroughly that they started recommending edits for it. (I wrote their text and now it is in its second edition, improved by inmates at Handlon.) They asked penetrating questions of our faith and its application to the world – their world – inside the prison fences. Men opened each class with devotionals and they prayed. And quickly I learned that with me were many men who were mature Christians whose presence in Handlon was perplexing and confusing.
Some told me their stories privately (although I never asked them to). It made me wonder about men who committed a crime when they were 17 and now at 45 were still incarcerated. If I was witnessing true transformation before me, what did that mean for the U.S. correctional system, the largest in the world? You can’t help but notice how many are African Americans (3x their population rate). I started reading articles by authors such as Eric Schlosser (The Atlantic), Bryan Stevenson (The New York Times), and Matt Ford (The New Republic). I devoured Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and knew at once that something was wrong with much of the prison setup.
The fullest transformation for me was recognizing that these prisoners were our neighbors. Not just theoretically, but in reality. Moreover, the students coming through our program have complex, thoughtful lives and a spiritual maturity that might surprise us. They will shatter your stereotypes and, in some cases, their stories will break your heart.
Each time I walk down that path toward the prison education buildings, I pause to admire the gardens. They are a metaphor for me. Flowers in a prison are no less astonishing than a New Testament class taught to incarcerated men. All of it is unexpected. And to a degree the flowers and the human transformations represent our mandate as believers in this world: in darkness we bring light. In prison we plant flowers. In our prison classes, we bring hope and possibility.