Vanderbilt Divinity School forges new variety of prison ministry

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Once a week, the Writing about Religion class meets. Ray Waddle, a Vanderbilt University adjunct professor and former religion editor at The Tennessean, leads the give-and-take.

In many ways, it’s a typical class at Vanderbilt Divinity School – except that the meeting isn’t actually at Vanderbilt’s scenic midtown campus. And some of the students are older and more world weary than usual.

The class meets in a classroom at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Vanderbilt students sit side-by-side with inmates, comparing ideas and experiences.

Vanderbilt began offering one class per semester at Riverbend in 2003.

“The initial idea was based on a program that’s been going on for 20 years at Sing Sing Prison in New York,” said Harmon Wray, a longtime Nashville criminal justice activist and one of three driving forces behind the effort. The others are the Rev. Janet Wolf and Richard Goode, associate professor of history at David Lipscomb University.

“The difference here is that I don’t think there’s any other place in the country where divinity students are actually sitting in the classroom with the Riverbend students reading the same material, discussing the same material,” Wray said.

The classes are designed to begin addressing the deficiencies of traditional prison ministries, much of which is done by chaplains hired by prison officials and therefore unlikely to be publicly critical of the system. Denominations that supply clergy to be prison chaplains often have suggestions for reform, but since their parishioners rarely venture into prisons, the good intentions rarely amount to anything. Many members of evangelical churches do visit prisoners, but limit their efforts to promoting the personal salvation of inmates.

“Those ministries don’t do anything about changing the system,” Wray said. “So, we were looking for a third alternative that would take seriously policy issues and try to change the system as well as work with individuals who are caught up in it.”
On the educational side, Vanderbilt hopes to offer students who participate in classes at Riverbend added texture to their education.

“Instead of sitting in a classroom here on this very elite campus and talking about liberation and anti-colonial and anti-empire theology and black theology and feminist theology, let’s give students the opportunity to be in a place where those issues are the daily life of the people,” Wray said. “So now they’re not just studying about these people. They’re studying with them.”

The class offerings were all criminal justice-centric the first two years, but started diversifying in 2005. In a landmark for the effort, The Gospel According to Matthew was offered for the fall 2005 semester, taught by tenured professor Amy-Jill Levine, Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies.

In the fall of 2006, a course on Law in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East will be led by Douglas Knight, professor of Hebrew Bible.

The program has evolved to the point where inmates with a college degree can apply for admission to Vanderbilt as a special student, and earn credit for their work in the Vanderbilt courses. Wray has ambitions to start a degree program for inmates and others who want to major in Criminal Justice Ministries.

“We’re doing prison ministry by doing this, and our students are doing ministry by being there,” Wray said. “And the prisoners are doing ministry to Vanderbilt folks. They’re teaching us what it’s like on the other side.”

Prisoners fill out comment cards at the end of each course. Like most students, they complain about the homework load and praise or criticize the instructors.

But sometimes there’s something more.

“Please come back,” one prisoner entreated when asked for suggestions. “I need the challenge and the hope you bring.”

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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