An Unintended Call:
A Professor Goes to Prison
Up to 2007, my only experience of prison ministry dated back to my teenage years when I occasionally assisted a musical group from the evangelical church my father pastored. We drove on Sunday mornings to a minimum-security camp near High Point, NC, and sang hymns, read scripture, preached and prayed. While vivid memories of the dormitories, the rudimentary facilities, and the haunted faces of the men lingered over the years, the thought of doing that kind of ministry in a prison—especially after my reception into the Catholic Church—had no appeal. Like so many other Americans, I paid scant attention to the fact that from the late 1970s down to the present, we were becoming a country struggling with hyper-incarceration. By 2007, one in every one hundred adults (2.3 million Americans) was behind prison bars. It had also completely escaped my attention that in 1994 Pell grants had been denied prisoners, and so a network of more than 350 college-in-prison programs collapsed, leaving this rapidly growing prison population without access to higher education.
Yet in 2007, during an April Sunday evening, watching a “60 Minutes” segment about prison education, I caught a vision for a form of prison ministry that did appeal to my spirituality and touched my professional life. I decided to teach in a prison. Proof that it was a “God project” emerged as doors opened, money was found, and administrators in the prison system and at Saint Louis University said yes to the idea. The project aligned with SLU’s Catholic Jesuit mission, and for the prison system it offered a form of volunteer work that went beyond the typical efforts to save souls behind prison fences. Starting with a pilot certificate in theological studies and expanding later into an associate of arts degree, the work had a deep and profound impact on the prisoners and the prison staff who took our courses. Our evangelism came through our actions, rather than our words. Lives were changed and spiritual renewal became a natural byproduct of our commitment to be “present to the prisoner” (Matthew 25). My most celebrated example was a devoted Wicca, who over the course of eight years returned to his Christian roots, and recently was received into the Catholic Church.
That work has been handed off to others, and I am now transitioning to work as executive director of the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh. Organizing the work of a private residential research library, with a major digital humanities project (the digitization of Newman’s Birmingham Oratory Archives), seems quite a distance from the prison classrooms that have become so familiar over the last nine years. But where God’s grace is at work anything is possible. The sacramental character of my time in prisons, discovering Christ’s presence in the men and women I meet, has me looking for ways to orient that new work to include those confined to prisons. I live in hope.
Kenneth L. Parker, email@example.com
Saint Louis University