by Paul Schwarz
hen people try to emphasize the simplicity of something, they often resort to the cliche, "It isn't rocket science." But when a rocket scientist is performing the activity in question, it brings an entirely new meaning to the saying.
Such is the case with a program administered by RTS and its Virtual Campus. The Charlotte-based RTS Virtual Campus provides anyone, anywhere, with access to a seminary education without the need to actually relocate to a physical campus. One Virtual Campus program takes several of the seminary's course offerings behind some unlikely walls: those of U.S. prisons. And as you'd expect, the prisoners taking those courses fit some unlikely profiles of seminary students. Sam* (*Inmates' last names and locations have been omitted from this article for security reasons), the afore-mentioned rocket scientist, is one such student. He's one of 11 men who took Virtual classes this past year while incarcerated in federal or state facilities throughout the country.
The Degree Program began in 1998 as an extension of the Virtual Campus' regular course offerings. Inmates receive their course materials in much the same way as do other Virtual students. Cassette tapes of actual lectures by RTS professors are accompanied by workbooks and other written materials. Inmates correspond with staff members and other academic personnel just like other students and are otherwise expected to meet the same academic requirements.
RTS is one of only two seminaries in the entire country where students can earn an accredited degree almost entirely from a distance. The Degree Program is one of three administered by the Virtual Campus. A student can earn a Master of Arts in Religion with only two weeks required to be taken on one of the three RTS residential campuses. A second Virtual program, Special Students, enables students to work offsite toward the completion of one-half to one-third of any RTS degree, not just the M.A. in Religion.
The third program, the Certificate Program, is the one in which prisoners participate. The Certificate Program gives students the opportunity to take RTS courses without actually working toward a degree. The program offers a 30-hour certificate in any of five areas of study: Biblical Studies, Historical Studies, Theological Studies, General Studies and Missions. A key advantage to the Certificate Program is that a student doesn't need a bachelor's degree to participate. This feature makes the Prison Program especially attractive to inmates because prisoners often have not attended college, and some have not finished high school.
MAKING THE GRADE
In comparison with the general population, the challenge of taking such classes can be difficult for some prisoners due to this education gap. One student inmate, David, admits to finding the work challenging. "I am a long, long way outside my comfort zone," David says. However, the inmates who take the courses know that the material is helping them deal with the tribulations of prison life. Ishmael, who has seven years left to serve on a 15-year sentence, was recently denied parole. But now on his sixth RTS course, Ishmael sees his circumstances - and the courses - as part of God's plan for him.
"As with all my previous courses, [Systematic Theology III] takes me to greater depths of knowledge and understanding," he says. "Our Lord uses means, and RTS is His for me. My hope and comfort is in God's absolute sovereignty in both my affairs and my life."
Terry, a straight-A student taking Gospels and Acts, has also seen the RTS courses bear spiritual fruit in his life. "These courses have certainly allowed me to mature in the faith, which in turn has caused me to mature in my attitude toward others," he explains. "The assignments are challenging, extremely interesting and spiritually rewarding. God's redemptive work never ceases to amaze me."
ALMOST THROWN AWAY
That redemptive work is especially apparent in Sam, the rocket scientist. He holds a master's degree from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, and worked on satellite systems as an orbital engineer. Not too shabby, considering he came to the U.S. from South Korea with his family at age 16, barely knowing a syllable of English. Sam epitomized the American dream, as even his sentencing judge observed - he graduated at the top of his high-school class and continued at Northwestern University before going to MIT.
But Sam threw away a significant chunk of that dream in a foolish rage. He was arrested for kidnapping a man who had attacked his then-fiancée. After being convicted at trial, the young engineer received a four-year sentence to a federal prison. "That arrest removed everything I worked hard for and valued highly," Sam once wrote in a letter to RTS. "[It] changed me from an MIT rocket scientist to a federal prisoner. Instantly, I [fell] from top to bottom."
He didn't stay down for long, though. In that hardscrabble environment, Sam responded to God by placing his faith in Christ as His Savior. He eventually became a clerk for the prison chaplain and began teaching praise songs to fellow inmates during their worship services. Sam also plays the cello - not a pursuit typically associated with a federal prisoner. Seeking a seminary education would be considered atypical for an inmate as well, but once Sam heard about RTS from his chaplain, he jumped at the opportunity.
"Since God gave me the clear vision that is worthy of devoting my life [to], I do not want to waste any more time here," Sam wrote. "I would like to start the first step to realize God's vision in me. I promise you that I will study very hard and will not waste your scholarship fund."
Sam has come through so far. He completed his first course, Systematic Theology I, with an almost perfect score, and has been repeatedly requesting more courses - sometimes sending a letter or two every week, according to those administering the program. This points to what Andy Peterson, RTS Senior Vice President for the RTS Virtual Campus, identifies as one of the challenges facing the program: the limits of available scholarship money.
"The Prison Program is funded entirely by grants, so we can only take in as many students as we have money for during that particular semester," Andy explains. Though 11 inmates took classes this past academic term through the Prison Program, many others remain on a waiting list until additional grant money becomes available.
Another occasional challenge to the program involves the prisons themselves. Sometimes the facilities perceive the course materials to be a security risk. Not necessarily because of the spiritual content of the lectures, mind you, but because, among other concerns, the cassette tapes themselves can be formed into weapons. David was actually accepted into the program in March 2001, but had to wait 16 months for his first course. Not only did he have to wait for funding to become available, but his facility also had to approve his receiving the course materials. "This institut[ion] maintains the position that my studies are a 'threat to the safety and security of the institut[ion],' " according to David.
THEY SHALL OVERCOME
The prisoners in the program, however, are undeterred. They're grateful for what God has accomplished in their lives and for the opportunity RTS provides them to be equipped for ministry. The inmates see themselves as being in a position where God can work through them in powerful ways in spite of - and sometimes even because of - the circumstances and choices that put them in prison in the first place.
"God has been raising up such an extraordinary group of leaders of His Kingdom inside prisons across America," wrote student inmate Robert in his original application to the program. "He is raising up for Himself an army of soldiers from behind the walls. And He has chosen me, called me, the lowest of the low, into His service to reach out to others as Christ reached out to those in need. Through me and many others like me, the Holy Spirit has been speaking some new things to the churches, [g]iving us the 'ear to hear' that Jesus spoke about in His letters to the churches in Revelation.
"Jesus has fulfilled in me His promise given in Psalm 51: 12,13, restoring in me the joy of His salvation, giving me a willing spirit to sustain me so I am able to teach transgressors His ways.
"It is no accident that I am here today applying to RTS. He is opening the doors necessary to prepare me for ministry, calling me into His service, and providing my financial needs at 'seminary and beyond.' I believe God is calling me into the ministry of reconciliation and teaching. RTS will provide me with a solid Reformed education based on Scripture. 'For the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,' and 'It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way' (Proverbs 13:14; 19:2)."
Such is the depth of the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of the inmates participating in the program. According to a report issued by the Virtual Campus in December 2002, "The Prison Program is the best tool we have for implementing and carrying out Kingdom work in the dark world these people inhabit." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
Contributions for scholarships for the Prison Programs should be sent
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1-2