by Robert Cager, MDIV student at North Park Theological Seminary
I am a North Park Theological Seminary student in the Masters of Divinity (MDIV) program. I am grateful for all of my graduate classes, and there is one class I am particularly grateful for. I have the privilege of traveling to Stateville Correctional Facility in Romeoville, IL every Monday to study God’s word, fellowship and pray with a group of residents there.
The class is entitled: Urban Studies and we have read through the book, “And the Criminals with Him: Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and All the Reconciled” by Will D. Campbell and Richard C. Goode. The class is led and instructed by Professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and Professor Deborah Penny. These women lead us with grace, wisdom, and Holy-Spirit power. I am forever grateful for them trailblazing the way for many of us, in the work of creating avenues for holistic rehabilitation for those marred by mass incarceration. One of the primary avenues of rehabilitation in this broken system is through education. Our class engages graduate level coursework on a weekly basis. We have witnessed and we are witnessing that Christ is completely revitalizing lives, these fellow humans, over and over again through the power and truth of education. They are excelling in comprehending graduate level theological matters despite the fact that some class members have only an 8th grade reading level.
Visiting Stateville Correctional Facility, if I can be candid, is no walk in the park. Neither is it a visit to the museum. We don’t go to “save”. We don’t go to watch, these friends don’t need oversight, they have enough of that. We don’t go to judge, it is not for us to judge. We go to be. To be with these men and listen, learn, and join in with the pain they carry, join in with the prayers they offer up to God, and join in with the power that God freely gives them as His beloved. Most of their lives, they have been emasculated by this system and what they need most is people to be with them, side by side. Walking through those doors, gates, and hallways every week, is simultaneously one of the hardest and the most rewarding experiences. We see God in the most awesome ways, and it is at a great cost.
This is home for our incarcerated brothers. A home where chains, strange smells, constant yelling, and so much more is a reality. This is a reality that most of us will never experience. It is in this place, their home, they are numbered and referred to by their numbers. In this home, their name doesn’t matter. Humanity is not considered. There is not much opportunity to exercise the human right of choice, even in the simplest of ways that we take for granted. For example, choosing which soap they want or what color towel they get to clean themselves. Yet, amidst all of this God, the mighty deliverer, the restorer of humanity is ever present and ever prevailing.
The Evangelical Covenant Church dedicated the November issue of the Covenant Companion to feature stories and testimonies of our incarcerated brothers at Stateville. Read the article here. This has brought about a wind of healing and revival within the 30-foot prison walls. In a place that we ignore and that we don’t consider our responsibility, God is present and moving.
As a result of the Companion article, the guards within the prison are becoming more and more aware of the hearts of the men that they serve inside. Not too long ago a guard, after reading stories from this Covenant Companion article was so moved, that she personally walked over to the cell of one of our fellow students, called him by name and said, “Your article changed my life”. This was the first time someone had ever addressed this brother by his name – usually guards use only numbers when addressing inmates. When our brother informed us of this, during one of our classes we literally had a praise break! We took a pause and decided to give God praise and worship for the changes and powerful impacts that are happening within walls of dehumanization. We know where our help comes from!
If it wasn’t for God touching the hearts of Michelle and Deborah and everyone else involved behind the scenes in support of this program, who in turn were obedient to the call to Stateville, the guards and many others within Stateville would not know the love of Jesus, and we would not know the love of God from this community of incarcerated brothers.
Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison, as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body [and subject to physical suffering].” God has called us to remember our incarcerated brothers and sisters. For us, remembering is a call to being. Not for the sake of saving them – Jesus has already done that and He is doing that. We are called to them because they are human and deserve human community. I am grateful God called me to this place. It’s a place where my black body gets to be in a space with other black and white bodies. It’s a place rarely touched by free people who carry God in their hearts. Change is happening in Stateville. Change is happening in the men we fellowship with every week. Change is taking root in me.
“For the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.” (Psalm 69:33)