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San Quentin inmates earn seminary diplomas

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Morris Curry Jr., a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California, said the prison has more in common with Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary that one would notice at first glance.

“God is behind those walls,” Curry said of San Quentin, which is located only 20 minutes from the seminary’s Northern California campus in Mill Valley.

During a graduation ceremony at the prison in June, four inmates received diplomas in Christian ministries from Golden Gate Seminary’s Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD) program.

The graduates were Mark Baldwin of California, 50; Robert Butler of California, 51; David Cowan of Pennsylvania, 42; and Darrell Cortez Hartley of Missouri, 46.

The 30-plus inmates in the program at San Quentin are taught by seminary graduate students and alumni on a volunteer basis during spring and fall semesters. The program takes two to three years to complete, and instruction includes eight classes that range from church planting and evangelism to ministry training.

“The word ‘contextualized’ means the material is taught in the language and culture of a particular people group,” said Chris Foreman, who was one of the first of San Quentin’s CLD instructors. “When we began to teach at San Quentin, we had to contextualize the curriculum for this culture.”

Foreman is a Golden Gate graduate who is pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in San Lorenzo, Calif.

Golden Gate is marking the CLD program’s 30th anniversary this year. The program has 62 centers nationwide and is taught in 17 states and 11 languages, but San Quentin is the only prison location.

Most CLD graduates have the option of participating in commencement ceremonies at one of Golden Gate Seminary’s five campuses. But for the San Quentin grads, the ceremony went to the prison. More than 150 inmates and guests attended the ceremony in the prison’s Protestant chapel.

“These graduates are receiving the same experience as our other graduates,” Jeff Iorg, the seminary’s president, said. “The program is the same, the people on the podium are the same, the diploma is the same, and we expect the same kind of results from these graduates as from our other graduates.

“Some may wonder why such a program would be offered in prison, where many of the graduates will never be paroled,” Iorg said. “Our mission is training leaders to expand God’s Kingdom. The church is in San Quentin and needs leaders here, too.”

Curry, of Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship at San Quentin, agreed.

“People on the outside need to see the work that God has done on the inside with these men,” Curry said, adding that ministry is happening in the cells.

“It might be the only time some of these men get to make a decision for Christ. And they’re not the same people once they ask Jesus into their lives,” he said. “God has done something to them on the inside. You can see the redeeming value of God in their lives.”

The program provides classes at a post-high school level to train Christian leaders. For those without a high school or college diploma, or for those with English as a second language, CLD offers an opportunity to become equipped and trained for effective Christian service.

Donald Hart, a seminary graduate who has taught several CLD classes, said he was amazed at the difference in some men.

“Even without knowing them deeply, I could see transformation, could see what God had done in their lives. The work of God doesn’t stop at the prison door,” Hart said.

Several of the instructors, who are Golden Gate Seminary graduate students or alumni, were surprised by how motivated the inmates are.

“They attend because they want to, they have a real desire to learn, and they want to make a difference,” Hart said.

Ray Fox, another seminary graduate, said he was struck by how much the prisoners accomplish with minimal resources. San Quentin students are not allowed to use computers, and there are no PowerPoint presentations, no CDs and no theological library available.

“We use blackboards as a teaching tool,” Fox said. “I am humbled by these guys. They come in with their handwritten, crumpled assignments, and they spend 16 weeks proving you’re not wasting your time with them.”

Curry identified some obstacles to earning an education in prison.

“While it is available, it is sometimes inaccessible because of lock-downs, late and slow meal schedules and inclement weather,” he said. “It would be easy to use these as excuses, but these brothers were determined to keep going.”

At the prison, all the instructors are volunteers because there is no budget.

“All the hardcover theology books are purchased with donated funds,” Don Beall, the seminary’s national CLD director, said. “The prisoners don’t own the books, but they check them out and are responsible for them. These books cost $49 each, and if they lose a book they have to pay for it.”

Inmates’ salaries are 28 cents an hour, Beall said.

“Even with this minimal income, the Garden Chapel congregation has sent $6,000 to six missions so far this year,” Curry said in April.

Cowan, one of the four inmates who graduated, oversees the prison’s missions ministry through prayer vigils and fundraising, and he corresponds with missionaries through handwritten letters.

The other CLD graduates have ministries within the prison. Baldwin teaches an apologetics class and leads a daily Bible study, Hartley counsels people who are struggling with addictions, and Butler is an ordained minister.

“Under the leadership of my pastor [Curry], I minister to the needs of this church. I preach, pray, welcome, teach and assist the pastor in whatever he needs,” Butler said.

At the conclusion of his commencement address, Iorg recounted an earlier meeting with the CLD students.

“A few months ago, I was asked to be a guest lecturer in a course. The subject was my book, ‘Is God Calling Me?’ I was told to speak for a few minutes and then let the men ask questions about it.

“To my surprise, when it came time for questions, every man in the class pulled out his copy of the book — complete with post-it notes dangling from multiple pages — and started asking me questions,” Iorg said. “They weren’t general questions. They asked things like, ‘On page 68, you said …. How do you apply this …?’ It was one of the most invigorating teaching experiences of my ministry.”

Some of the CLD graduates at San Quentin won’t be released for years, maybe even decades, but they are useful for the Kingdom.

“Thank God for these men who are learning to be ministry leaders — and missionaries — in the difficult setting of a state penitentiary,” Iorg said.
Phyllis Evans is director of communications at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

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