Doing justice to prison ministry
LINCOLN, Neb. — Bill Hance was a reluctant convert to prison…
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The journey to the moment the dean draped the velvet-rimmed master’s hoods over the women’s shoulders took a long time: 15 years, one class a week, one course a semester, fall, spring and summer.
Time is exactly what the women were doing — or redeeming — as they patiently studied their way to what is likely the only master’s degree in ministry offered in a U.S. women’s prison.
Related: Doing justice to prison ministry
Thirteen women walked across the gymnasium stage at Nashville’s Debra Johnson Rehabilitation Center in mid-December to receive a Master of Arts in Christian ministry, the first graduate degree Lipscomb University has bestowed behind the chain-link and razor wire of the correctional facility formerly called the Tennessee Prison for Women.
The degree is offered through the LIFE Program — Lipscomb Initiative for Education — which began classes in 2007. Kate Watkins, LIFE’s executive director from 2016 to 2020 and currently a consultant to the program, singled out the master’s as “the only seminary degree offered in a women’s prison in the country.”
Lipscomb University, also in Nashville, is associated with Churches of Christ. University faculty travel to the correctional facility every Wednesday night, proceed through a checkpoint and teach their classes.
Of the 13 master’s students receiving degrees, eight were prison “insiders” joined by five “outsiders” choosing to take classes with incarcerated classmates as well as graduate with them. Some of the insiders began their university studies at the LIFE Program’s start, earning an associate degree and bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb before tackling graduate courses.
In addition to the 13 master’s graduates, two incarcerated women were awarded their associate degree, and three received their bachelor’s.
“Even though I was incarcerated, I still knew that life continued,” master’s graduate Reasha Frazier said shortly before the ceremonies began.
“It was just a hunger. There was always something in me that wanted to do something different,” Frazier said. “The older you get, the more you want to do with yourself. I don’t think that I necessarily knew what my sense of purpose was without going through some of the coursework that I went through.
“I wanted to be proud of myself. And I … have children, so I wanted them to have someone to look up to,” she added. “I’m only doing time, but it’s how I do my time. And I choose to do my time and not let the time do me.”
Evetta McGee, who received an associate degree, also observed how her studies took her far beyond mere intellectual growth.
“They just showed me something I had never seen, because when I was on the streets, I never even considered college,” McGee said.
“It gave me more than hope. I’ve learned so much about myself. I didn’t even know I was smart,” she said. “It showed me what community is. It’s just a different space on Wednesdays when we go to school. It’s not like we’re in prison.”
The master’s degree program grew out of a desire to offer meaningful academic experiences for women completing their undergraduate work as well as to equip students to meet the needs of other people, former director Watkins said.
In 2017, after a decade of undergraduate classes at the prison, Watkins pondered options. While previous classes had drawn support from across academic disciplines, sustaining a master’s degree would likely fall on one university department. Which one?
As Watkins was teaching one evening, a corrections officer interrupted class to tell a student to report to the prison chaplain’s office. “Her mother has died, and they’ve buried her mother, and someone is going to tell her tonight,” Watkins learned.
Sometimes residents are temporarily released to see a gravely ill loved one or at least attend a funeral, Watkins explained. But this student was receiving a double emotional blow. And there was likely no chaplain still around.
The student’s loss and the need surrounding it gave Watkins the answers she was looking for.
“If we place students in the prison who know how to sit with people in their grief and in their joy and … in their spiritual curiosity,” Watkins thought, “then that’s what we need to do.”
The master’s degree prepares students to minister wherever they may find themselves. Besides the study of Scripture and theology, the 36-credit-hour program includes classes on pastoral care, spiritual formation and conflict management.
“They’ll encounter people that we’ll never be able to encounter. Some of our students are never going to get out. And so, they will be there as quiet chaplains, as quiet ministers of presence,” Watkins explained. “This is not a degree that you get because you are trying to climb a ladder.”
Lipscomb history professor Richard Goode, the LIFE Program’s founding director, anchored the university’s work at correctional facilities in the heart of the Christian message.
“Helping these students with a second chance, a way for them to identify and bring their talents to bear, helps restore them to a world that has often exiled them.”
“We are committed to that biblical principle of being ministers of reconciliation,” Goode said. “Where there have been broken relationships, we want to be part of the … healing process that restores right relations. … Helping these students with a second chance, a way for them to identify and bring their talents to bear, helps restore them to a world that has often exiled them.”
Terra Tucker, an outside master’s student who graduated in the ceremonies at the correctional center, echoed the program’s emphasis on reconciliation.
“I’d like to thank you, Lipscomb University, for being a kingdom people who chose to join God in the work that God is always at work doing: restoring, rebuilding, renewing, giving beauty where there were ashes,” Tucker told the graduation audience. “In community we’ve made each other better.”
The graduate recalled an event that put reconciliation to the test.
“I had a dear friend about three years ago who lost a child in a criminal act,” Tucker said. While experiencing the bitter grief of her friend, a victim, she was spending one night every week at a place linked with perpetrators.
“I would come here on Wednesday nights and hold hands and love the faces and know the heart of … the other side,” Tucker said.
“I just want to know … how do you reconcile that?” Tucker asked a professor. “Maybe God wants to reconcile both,” he replied.
Graduation guest Rachel Riley-Coe, assistant commissioner of rehabilitation services for the Tennessee Department of Correction, stressed the positive impact of university education in Tennessee prisons.
Related: Gospel sets a Croatian prisoner free
“It’s beyond learning textbook data. … It’s teaching them critical thinking skills, it’s teaching how to stick through something, and it just … puts them in a different posture,” Riley-Coe explained.
“It has such an impact upon release, but it has such an impact while they’re here,” the official said. “If you lock people up and do not offer any … educational opportunities, you’re not fixing the problem. You’re deferring it.”
In a concluding charge to the graduates, Lipscomb President Candice McQueen recalled a box of personal notes she received from students after visiting classes at the correctional facility several months ago.
“I read each one of these letters. I devoured every word you said,” McQueen told the graduates and a small group of students sitting on gym bleachers behind the rest of the crowd.
One note stuck in the president’s mind. “I want you to know that this program has truly been a gift,” a student wrote.
“The gift of education that we’ve given to you does not even compare to what you’ve given to us,” McQueen said. “We’ve received your spirit, your curiosity, your intellect, your joy, your reflection, your patience, your kindness, your hope.”
“The gift of education that we’ve given to you does not even compare to what you’ve given to us. We’ve received your spirit, your curiosity, your intellect, your joy, your reflection, your patience, your kindness, your hope.”
The Lipscomb president shared words from her father before she herself left for graduate school.
“Folks can take a lot away from you — they can take your money, they can take your possessions, they can take your freedom, and they can take your self-worth,” McQueen’s father said. “But no one — no one — can take your education.
“Keep going,” McQueen urged. “We’re all so proud of you.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.