Is the Hope-Western Prison Education Program primarily oriented toward education? Or is it more aligned with ministry? The program is an accredited academic program leading to a Bachelor’s degree. It is intellectually rigorous, oriented to the liberal arts, and is therefore broad in its design while also providing depth of study in a major area of academic focus: Faith, Leadership, and Service.
But people of good will often refer to it as a ministry. It isn’t uncommon for students, professors, administrators, and supporters to ask us “How’s the prison ministry going?“
The borderlands between “education” and “ministry” are sometimes blurry. Neither Hope College nor Western Theological Seminary are churches primarily oriented toward ministry, but are instead academic institutions concerned with educating students. But it’s also true that both engage in ministry, and are concerned with whole-person educational and spiritual formation. This is true not only in Holland, but also at the Muskegon Correctional Facility.
New college students the world over begin their undergraduate studies by spending a few days being oriented to the academic life by faculty, staff, and more experienced students. The Hope-Western Prison Education Program students at Muskegon Correctional Facility are no different. There won’t be the usual campus tours or “getting to know you” games common to the 18-year old crowd. And the HWPEP orientation will be spread over three months instead of three days. But many of the things traditional undergrads need to find their bearings are shared by HWPEP’s incarcerated students. Here is a rundown of the what, why, and who of the HWPEP orientation:
Why Go To College?
Receive affirmation, inspiration, motivation, and advice
re·mark·a·ble /rəˈmärkəb(ə)l/ (adjective) worthy of attention; striking.
Room B-104 is located in Muskegon Correctional Facility’s school building. It is the home of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program.
Remarkable things happen there.
On Wednesday, September 22, 2021 Hope-Western Prison Education professors and teaching assistants re-entered Muskegon Correctional Facility for the first time in nearly two years. Our team walked across the prison yard, entered the school building, made its way down the hallway, and crossed the threshold of Room B-104 to the enthusiastic – even joyful – exclamations of the HWPEP students. Handshakes and warm greetings were shared all around. It felt like a family reunion.
The two-hour session began with a worship service organized by WTS student Miranda Craig. Professor Pam Bush taught the students a short prayer of praise and thanksgiving in sung Hebrew. And then each student reflected on how his learning has been impacted by the pandemic, and how he was feeling about beginning the journey toward his Bachelor’s degree. Here is a sampling of what the students had to say:
The clear bookbag you gave us is like carrying the Olympic torch!
When I saw the news that the program was approved I thought “All is right is with the world. Let’s go!”
Six months ago I didn’t know where my life was or where it was going. Now I’m invigorated.
I can’t wait to call my mother to tell her I learned how to pray in Hebrew.
It feels good to be loved. I’m so happy you’re back.
We’re trailblazers. We’re all involved in serving our community in some way. We’re plowing the field. We’re all supporting each other and pulling each other along.
Our assignments kept us going through COVID. HWPEP is like a purifying fire.
During the summer of 2021 the COVID pandemic forced the Michigan Department of Corrections to close prisons to visitors, volunteers, and everyone else who did not absolutely have to come to the prison. This forced the HWPEP leadership to get creative with ways to keep its students intellectually engaged (to say nothing of spiritually encouraged). We settled on the idea of a book club. We sent each student two books with instructions for how to organize and run a book discussion.
We also asked the students to send us feedback on each book and the process they engaged in thinking together about the texts. We received many inspired and inspiring reports. Here’s an example:
“Many of us [in the HWPEP] are searching for our own kind of freedom. Some of us may never again step foot outside a prison setting. Yet, we have all still made the choice to act on our hopes and dreams, wherever this journey leads us. And for me, that’s a special kind of freedom – the ability and willingness to choose something other than the life I’ve known.”
Asked for his impressions about tackling Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in only one week, a student responded “I didn’t understand it at all the first time I read it. The second time was equally difficult. I mean, it was like reading a foreign language. The third time I began to see some of the elements of Aristotle’s philosophy beginning to gel. Now that I’ve read it four times I can see how his ideas connect to Augustine, Aquinas, and Plato.”
All of his classmates nodded in agreement, as if they too had read Aristotle four times in one week.
Today Hope College, Western Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections announced a six-year renewable agreement to offer a Hope BA at Muskegon Correctional Facility. Read more about it here>>
The Hope-Western Prison Education Program operated in a non-credit mode from March 2018 through July 2021. The 20 students in the program’s first cohort took six courses and engaged in two book studies in this pilot phase of the program. Here is what we learned:
Proposition 1: Incarcerated men serving long sentences are capable of successfully completing college-level coursework.
Proposition 2: Incarcerated students can competently read, reflect critically, speak powerfully, and write cogently about challenging texts.
Proposition 3: Incarcerated students are capable of generative thinking and creative expression in different genres.
Proposition 4: Incarcerated students are capable of enlarging their imaginations for lives marked by significant personal, intellectual, and spiritual transformation.
Proposition 5: Traditional WTS and Hope students are interested and capable teaching assistants, and are deeply impacted by the experience.
Proposition 6: There is a high demand for the program.
Proposition 7: Faculty have the personal and professional interest and capacity to teach an occasional course over and above their normal Holland-campus assignments.
The Hope-Western Prison Education Program’s fundraising goal for 2021 is $200,000. Gifts made this year will be matched up to $100,000. All gifts help offset costs for professor and teaching assistant stipends, travel to and from Muskegon Correctional Facility, textbook and computer purchases, school supplies, and student and staff orientation. Can you help?
We surveyed the Hope and WTS faculty during the planning phase of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program. One hundred seventy-two faculty responded to the survey. Of the 147 that completed the survey, 61 (42%) of you responded affirmatively when asked if you would be interested in teaching in the program. Forty of you (27%) indicated that you might be interested depending on your personal circumstances at the time. Forty-six respondents (31%) were not interested at the time (2018), though the reasons provided were typically circumstantial and temporary.
We have a much more compelling story to tell now that six courses have been completed at Muskegon Correctional Facility. Take a look at this and see if you don’t find your imagination stirred:
The question may seem silly to those of us for whom a college education was always part of our natural path to full adulthood. But many incarcerated people come from backgrounds of poverty, violence, and trauma. The kind of future-oriented imaginations that most of our traditional students grow up with are foreign to people whose idea of “the future” only extends to the end of the day.
Just getting by.
Just getting through the day.
Go to college? Probably not.
We recently interviewed three graduates of the Calvin Prison Initiative. Each has been paroled. Each is now putting his college education to good use. Each is a productive and engaged member of his community. We asked these men why they decided to go to college in prison. Hear what they had to say.
The parable of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4) is familiar to many. An impoverished widow contributes two small coins as an offering to the temple coffers. These coins represent a huge sacrifice for her. We can imagine her praying “Take all that I have, Lord, for all I have is yours.”
The Hope-Western Prison Education Program has received many gifts to support the work of educating its students. All gifts are meaningful not only for how they push the HWPEP mission forward, but for how they connect the givers to our students in real, tangible ways. Some gifts have been sizable and sacrificial. But some have been small and sacrificial.
Consider the way one HWPEP student gives sacrificially to the members of his imprisoned community:
“I cook meals for brothers every now and then. I also was led to start a birthday ministry where I give guys candy bars, popcorn, and other food items on God’s behalf for their birthdays.”
Candy bars, popcorn, and “other food items” are luxury goods in prison. We take them for granted. This student does not. Note that he provides these things to his friends “on God’s behalf.” This student goes without so his brothers can have a little.
There is another student who was admitted to the first cohort in 2018. He took two HWPEP courses, and did well. He was quick to raise his hand to contribute to class conversations. His smile, cheerful attitude, and sense of eager inquiry was infectious. He has since been transferred to another prison so he can pursue an Associate’s degree from a college with a more established program.
This student has written to us on three occasions. The envelopes containing his letters were immaculately composed. Each contained a first-class stamp carefully affixed in the upper right corner of the envelopes. These stamps cost 55 cents – a princely sum for someone who earns mere pennies per hour for his prison job.
And each letter was accompanied by a check for $10.
Imprisoned people are poor. Most were poor when they went to prison, they remain poor while incarcerated, and they are poor when released from prison. The student who contributed $10 (three times!) to HWPEP is poor. He has given from his need. Here’s what he wrote with his latest contribution:
“God bless your Hope campus in Holland! This year has not started off easy, however, I have a personal testimony to share with you. As an agent of hope, my trust in God has been renewed by the passing of my Christian mother on January 8. Christ’s life is manifested in the sacred heart of our Heavenly Father and Jesus – in the blessed hope and rest of the faithful. Looking back at our time together in a small classroom at Muskegon Correctional Facility, I still remember my mother being happy that I was part of a Christian liberal arts college, not just a school teaching me how to make money…”
These incarcerated students’ mites honor God. They encourage us. They humble us for the work that Hope and WTS professors are doing to elevate their students’ lives. And their own.