From Former Criminals to Transformative Leaders

May 27, 2019, 1:36 am

On Monday, May 20, I had the privilege of receiving my Associate’s degree in Ministry Leadership from Calvin College through the Calvin Prison Initiative. I was one of 19 students to graduate, one of whom had recently been released from prison and received his degree the Saturday before in the commencement ceremony at the Calvin College campus .

Receiving my degree was a proud moment for me, not so much because of the degree itself, but because it represents something incredibly positive in a negative situation (prison). I was proud to stand with the brothers I’ve gained through this program, and even prouder as I listened to the youngest member of our cohort give a speech that rivaled that of Heidi Washington, Michigan Department of Corrections Director, Warden Burton, and Calvin’s special guest speaker, Dr. Kahn Nedd. Celebrating this momentous occasion was even more special because my mother, brother, and a friend were inside the prison in the audience cheering me on. 

Five years ago, I would have bet money that would never happen–but it did.

The prison system in America is changing. The change is frustratingly slow, but it is changing. Much still needs to be done on sentencing reforms and even on corrections philosophy in general, but having a front-row seat to hear the MDOC director express her sentiments gives me hope that the opportunities I have had will expand more and more. 

When I started this blog, I had no idea I would be privileged to be a part of the Calvin Prison Initiative. It wasn’t even a program yet. But I named this blog “Hope on the Inside” because I believe that I hold power to choose how I respond to my prison experience. Prison sucks–let’s be honest. But I can make choices within my power that support my hope for a better future. I’m extremely fortunate to have people who have helped me with those choices, both before joining CPI and even now. Other prisoners are not so fortunate, and that needs to change. 

I’m also fortunate that I will leave prison one day, a privilege close to two-thirds of the other men in the CPI program do not have. They’ll move on to other prisons to use their education to influence positive changes in the prison system, at least that’s the hope. Others, like me, will leave prison better prepared to find jobs and positively affect the communities to which we parole. It’s a privilege that comes with great responsibility, but many of us are just itching for that chance. 

Calvin College (soon to be Calvin University) did not have to come into prison to educate prisoners. They did so because they believe that all people, even convicted criminals, deserve to be treated with dignity and as God’s valued creation. We certainly don’t deserve what they’ve given us, but I hope to exemplify the same grace they’ve shown to us prisoner students.

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