Black pastor leads his white North Carolina church toward a fuller reckoning on race

Black pastor leads his white North Carolina church toward a fuller reckoning on race


Video Courtesy of Transformation Church


The Sunday morning service at Providence United Methodist Church last month began with a few praise songs, as usual, then an opening prayer. But before launching into his sermon, the Rev. Aldana Allen offered a personal testimony.

“I want to begin by glorifying and thanking God once again for my life, my health and my strength,” Allen told his congregants, who listened to the sermon from their cars as part of the new coronavirus routine.

He then proceeded to relate a terrifying incident that happened to him the Sunday before.

On his way home from church, he stopped for gas. As he was driving away, he noticed he was being followed, Allen said. He took an alternate route just to make sure, but the person continued to follow him. As Allen finally pulled into his driveway in a suburb of Charlotte, so did his pursuer, who began revving his car, lunging forward and pulling back.

The standoff in the middle of Allen’s driveway continued for several minutes. Eventually, the pursuer drove off. It was an important reminder, he said, of humankind’s fallenness. He then delivered his sermon.

Allen, who has led the small rural church for the past six years, is Black. His members are overwhelmingly white.

This North Carolina church about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte and several miles outside historic downtown Salisbury, is a microcosm of the old rural South. The country roads leading to the 182-year-old church are dotted with “Trump 2020” signs. Salisbury is the county seat of Rowan County, which voted for Trump over Biden by a 2-to-1 margin, 67% to 31%. The city is the birthplace of Bob Jones, the late Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some homes here still fly the Confederate flag, and until this summer, a prominent bronze statue of an angel carrying a Confederate soldier stood on a pedestal right outside St. John’s Lutheran Church downtown.

Yet, at Providence United Methodist, race, one of the defining issues of 2020, is being negotiated in new ways. Allen, 48, doesn’t press the issue most Sundays. A Southerner, too, he walks a fine line — not wanting to alienate his congregants or risk a backlash. He did not tell his congregants that his pursuer that Sunday night was white (though he did tell the police who are investigating the incident). He did not point fingers. He did not issue a call to action.

But many congregants said they nonetheless understood.

“Hearing of his most recent experience tells us it’s still out there and it exists,” said the church’s youth leader, Marcie Petty, referring to racial intimidation. “It needs to stop.”

Allen is a Mississippi native who grew up in Tennessee, and has spent most of his career working in white churches. He has won the support of his congregants, in part by keeping the conversation comfortable and closely relating his experience to Christian themes. Along the way he has subtly raised his flocks’ awareness of how racism and racial discrimination continue to pose significant problems for African Americans.

Hesitant at first

The 300 or so congregants at Providence United Methodist did not choose Allen. Pastors in the United Methodist Church are appointed by bishops, normally for a year at a time.

In a commitment to create a multiracial church, United Methodist bishops have been assigning Black pastors to predominantly white congregations for about 50 years. In the Western North Carolina Conference, where Allen is based — covering Greensboro and areas west— there are 24 Black pastors among the conference’s 898 predominantly white churches.

“Our belief is that when people develop relationships, biases that are part of the racial context begin to diminish,” said Paul Leeland, bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference.

The conference has recently begun a larger conversation on how to be antiracist. For many churches, it’s a process. Most white churches are initially hesitant to accept a Black pastor, Leeland said.

Providence, where Allen was first appointed in 2014, was no exception.

“There was apprehension when he was announced,” acknowledged Neal Hall, the church’s lay leader and a lifelong member. “It’s something we’ve never experienced.”

Hall, 59, said his own apprehension faded a few months after Allen’s arrival, when his daughter, who had been in declining health, died. Hall called Allen, who rushed to the hospital where Hall’s daughter Amber was ailing, and stayed with the family, comforting them and reading Scripture passages into the early hours of the morning.

“He was my pastor in a time of need,” said Hall. “That bonds you.”

For Petty, Allen has been a “godly” role model — not only for the church youth but for her two boys, ages 14 and 21. Her eldest, John, had drifted away from the church under the church’s previous pastor. Allen visited her home and spoke to John about recommitting to Jesus and returning to church, which he did.

She has been so impressed with Allen she has invited friends, curious about her Black pastor, to hear him preach.

“He brings people to see both sides and to know that there are changes in the world, and we need to be a part of those changes,” Petty said.

Allen, who graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said he was shaped by the Black liberation theology of James Cone, who saw justice for the poor and the outcast as the very heart of the Christian Gospel.

Married to a Presbyterian minister — the couple has  two boys —  Allen said he believes providing genuine care to his congregants will reduce racial prejudice and bias.

In a paper for his doctoral program at Hood Theological Seminary, a historically Black school located in Salisbury, Allen recently wrote, “The more I can express our existential commonalities, and emphasize that God is the solution to the human predicament, the more the artificial barriers will fall.”

Stifling healthy conversation

Being a Black pastor in a predominantly white church in the age of Trump has been a challenge nonetheless. The president has defended white nationalists, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and generally exacerbated America’s racial divide.

The death of George Floyd, the Black Minneapolis man killed in police custody, and the subsequent protests that broke out across the nation, moved Allen to once again take a more direct approach.

Ten days after Floyd’s death, Allen used his Sunday sermon to expound on the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan and to recount a story from his youth. At a Fourth of July fireworks display in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a white man drove by in a truck, flicked a beer bottle cap against Allen’s head and then spat on him.

“That is the ugliest experience of racism I have experienced in my life, but it’s not the only one,”  he told his congregants. “I share that story because of all the things that are going on in the news. I want you to know it’s real.”

He then went on to say that Americans and Christians in particular need to raise their awareness and show more empathy.

Yes, “All Lives Matter,” he said, but added: “We’re asking you to have empathy for this particular subset of all lives. All lives matter may be theologically correct, but what you are actually doing is stifling healthy conversation.”

Several members said they were moved.

“I will tell you personally I thought everything was taken care of after Obama was president,” said David Shields, a church member. “I thought we were in a post-racial society. Aldana drove home the point that there was a lot of work to be done.”

Not all Providence members appreciated the sermon. A handful felt that church was a place of refuge. They didn’t want to be thrust right back into the storm.

A six-week Bible study about race and reconciliation that Allen started soon afterward was poorly attended. Allen said he wasn’t sure if people didn’t want to engage the subject or were staying away from church because of pandemic fears.

“I hate it for him that the race thing came up, and you hear people saying that they’re tired of hearing about it,” said Pam Ervin, a member who chairs the church’s mission projects. “It’s sad that we couldn’t have these conversations.”

Allen, however, hasn’t given up. Before COVID-19, the church had sermon swaps and common meals with a predominantly Black church down the road, and he wants that relationship to continue.

So far, church members say they’ve been able to see each other as people first, not Republicans and Democrats, but Allen is thinking of starting a Bible class on the nation’s political divides and how people might come together — perhaps around the time of President-elect Biden’s inauguration, he said.

Church members aren’t sure they can find unity on both sides of the political divide, but on racial issues, they said their consciences have been pricked.

“I don’t think that Pastor Allen being here is accidental,” said Hall, the church lay leader. “It’s God loosening us up. Pastor Allen was something we needed, and God delivered because he knew these times were coming. He’s showing part of what that different way looks like.”

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)

High-Intensity Workout and then Prayer

High-Intensity Workout and then Prayer

On a Tuesday evening under the roof of a public picnic shelter, a group of women ages 20 to 55 groaned through a series of high-intensity exercises in the 88-degree heat and humidity.

Cheered on by their leader, who yelled, “you’re getting stronger,” and, “you’re going to feel like Popeye,” the women press on with  jumping jacks, burpee box jumps and a set of other cardio exercises with inventive names: “dying cockroach,” “ski moguls,” and “sparky crabs.”

But the intensity of the boot-camp-like drill ended on a quieter, more reflective note 45-minutes later as the women came into a circle, their faces still flush from working out, to close with a prayer:

“Lord, thank you for the time we’ve been able to be together and just exercise,” said Julie Swift, one of the women. “Please bless all these ladies and sustain them through their week. In Jesus’ name we pray.”

After a unison “amen,” they roll up their mats, give each other a hug and head home — until the next workout.

A host of modern exercise groups have sprung up in the last decade that aim to create fitter bodies, minds and hearts: CrossFit, SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Orangetheory.

All promise to empower, strengthen and transform while creating a sense of community.

The latest is Females in Action, a Southern-style fitness program designed to make women stronger and develop friendships. The FiA brand is the female equivalent to F3  —  its larger male counterpart, which aims to build men up through fitness, fellowship and faith.

But unlike the for-profit studios that cater to urban millennials willing and able to pay $40 a class, Females in Action (like F3) is free. Workout sessions are peer-led. They most often take place outdoors, in public parks or school fields. And they typically end with a spiritual high five.

“We are focused on fitness, but it goes beyond that,” explained Catherine Butler, who leads one of three Charlotte, North Carolina, FiA groups. “We are a community of women that lifts each other up.”

Started six years ago, FiA has grown to 53 regional workout groups spread across multiple states but heavily concentrated in North and South Carolina. Many are located in the suburbs and appeal to churchgoing working women whose husbands oftentimes participate in the male counterpart.

FiA estimates 5,700 women work out at its exercise sessions, and many say the biggest draw is the camaraderie and support the women offer one another.

“There’s nothing ever negative here,” said Caroline Uenking, 20, who accompanied her mother, Heather, to a recent workout. “It’s all positive.”

Caroline, who has some problems with her calves, and Heather, who has a hard time touching her toes, are never singled out, they said. Instead, they’re encouraged to do what they can, altering a particular exercise to meet their abilities.

Like the F3 male-only version from which it borrows extensively, the workouts have a certain military style that stems from one of its founders, David Redding, a former member of the Green Berets. Although some workouts incorporate yoga and others running, the typical session features aerobic exercise sets in which participants push themselves as hard as they can, rest and repeat.

In keeping with military nomenclature, participants are required to have nicknames, too. Stephanie Walton, the leader of the Apex group, is known as Peachtree; Janice Azeveda, who leads a group that meets in Cary, is known as Van Gogh.

But although the exercises are hardcore, the female-only environment makes it more inviting for some women.

A list of exercises drawn up by Stephanie Walton who leads the Females in Action workout in Apex, N.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Swift, 55, said she felt overwhelmed attending gym classes alongside men.

“I would prefer women who can influence each other,” she said.

The gender restriction may be part of FiA’s more traditional appeal. If some of the newer fitness center brands draw millennials with no particular faith, FiA draws people who tend to be more religiously conventional.

Though not explicitly Christian, FiA promotes the idea of a belief in a higher being, whatever that might be called (a formula that also echoes the second Alcoholics Anonymous step, “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”).

Walton, a mom now studying for a degree in health and fitness science, said FiA made her a better person.

“Since I’ve been doing FiA I’ve been going to church more,” she said. “I’ve been doing more soul-searching. It’s just part of it. You start caring about people. You see their children being born. You do things for their husbands when their husbands are sick.”

Not everyone in F3 is religiously devout, and not all sessions end in prayer.

But the group leader, called a “Q,” is expected to end each workout with what’s called a “Circle of Trust,” intended as a short time to reflect.

Azevedo, who leads a 5:30 a.m. workout in nearby Cary, tends to keep things strictly nonsectarian. She concluded a recent session by reading a quote from personal coach Cheryl Richardson about the importance of self care.

A 58-year-old preschool teacher, Azevedo said she nearly fainted the first time she attended a FiA workout. She was never very athletic, she said, and gyms did nothing for her.

“If you decide not to go, nobody at the gym is going to say, ‘Hey, I missed you. Where were you?’” she said. “With this particular group, if you’re not there, somebody checks in with you and asks, ‘Are you OK?’ That’s a beautiful thing, having relationships of support. That’s really important.”

Through FiA, she’s lost weight and gained muscle. Best of all, FiA empowers women and cheers them on.

“It’s a life-changing group,” she said. “Physically you change because you’re taking care of your body. Mentally you change because you’re meeting new people and establishing new relationships and spiritually you change because you’re taking time out to reflect on your life. It’s a good thing.”

Seminaries partner with prisons to offer inmates new life as ministers

Seminaries partner with prisons to offer inmates new life as ministers

Jamie Dew, dean of the college at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaches a theology class to inmates at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C. RNS photo by Sam Morris

Inside a squat cinderblock building on the grounds of Nash Correctional Institution, 24 inmates are hunched over white plastic tables listening to Professor James Dew explain how God is omnipotent and omniscient.

More than half of the men listening are serving life sentences for murder, armed robbery and other offenses. The rest have at least 12 years left to serve.

But Dew is not preaching  to his audience as he paces the room posing questions about whether God can sin (No) or know people’s emotions (there’s disagreement, but most Christians say yes). He is teaching theology to prospective ministers.

The prisoners jotting notes, calling up documents on closed-circuit laptops or asking Dew questions of their own are earning four-year bachelor’s degrees in pastoral ministry from the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Wake Forest.

Dew’s class is part of a new niche in prison education: training inmates to become “field ministers” who serve as counselors for other inmates, lead prayers, assist prison chaplains and generally serve as a calming influence in prison yards.

Many of Dew’s students get up at 5 a.m. for devotionals, though it is not required. They attend lectures from 8:15 to 11:15, Monday through Thursday. There’s study hall in the afternoon and group study in the evenings. Each inmate gets a laptop with access to a limited online resource library.

Decades of research show that inmates who get an education have a far lower incidence of repeating criminal behavior, but of the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons, only a tiny percentage can afford a college degree while behind bars.

Evangelical seminaries, led by Southern Baptist-affiliated schools, are increasingly stepping into the gap, raising money to offer inmates free, on-site college degrees in exchange for their labor once they graduate. Inmates in 15 states can now apply for such programs, and 10 more seminaries have programs in the planning stages, according to the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, which helps set them up.

The degree awarded is different from state to state. In North Carolina, it’s a Bachelor of Arts in pastoral ministry; in Texas, a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies; and in South Carolina, an Associate of Arts degree.

Inmates at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C., are able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry. RNS photo by Sam Morris

Game Plan for Life, a foundation started by Hall of Fame NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, funds North Carolina’s effort, which costs nearly $300,000 a year. The Heart of Texas Foundation funds a similar program in Texas, which this year had a budget of $260,000.

More money goes to build up the educational infrastructure at prisons before classes can begin. Here at the Nash Correctional Institution, Southeastern Seminary received two grants to fund a library, and Game Plan for Life is now planning a $500,000 classroom building on prison grounds.

“We bring the academics, the state brings the legal clearance and helps us navigate the red tape, Game Plan for Life brings the financial component,” said Dew, the dean of Southeastern College and one of the half-dozen professors who spends a morning each week teaching at the prison. “It’s a three-way partnership.”

Since the program started two years ago, hundreds of North Carolina’s 36,635 prison inmates have applied to take the course of study and 53 have been admitted. Applicants must be felons serving minimum 15-year sentences with a high school diploma or GED and a clean disciplinary record for at least a year.

“Before we came here a lot of us were living in despair — no hope,” said James Benoy, who has been taking classes for the past 18 months. “It’s transformed us. We have a purpose, a direction and a mission in life.”

Most of the participants here were reared as Baptists or in various Pentecostal denominations. But by law, the programs must admit inmates of all faiths. At Nash Correctional, there are a few Catholics, a Muslim and one Rastafarian.

Still, the doctrine taught here is consistent with what Southern Baptists believe — that the Bible is divine revelation and inerrant.

That raises questions for some scholars about whether the programs privilege one set of religious beliefs over others. In general, prisons must provide equally for all inmates, regardless of their faith, or lack of it.

An inmate at Nash Correctional Institution works on material for a theology class in Nashville, N.C. RNS photo by Sam Morris

There are other concerns, too. “From my perspective, the larger issue is to what extent American prison systems are outsourcing rehabilitation to religious volunteers,” said Michael Hallett, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida who has written extensively about seminary prison programs.

Hallett questions just how voluntary these charitably funded programs are, since in most cases there are no secular alternatives.

“If the only game in town is a religious education program that’s going to result in you being in an easier prison while you’re doing life in prison, how authentic is the profession of faith?” he asks.

While inmates at most prisons can take correspondence courses from universities, as well as train to become plumbers, electricians or computer technicians, the cost of a bachelor’s degree makes it unattainable for most. (One exception is New York State’s Bard Prison Initiative.)

In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell grants for people serving in prison. (The Obama administration began a pilot program to resume prisoner access to Pell grants, but it faces an uncertain future.)

When the Pell grants were ended, the warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary feared his famously fractious prison, known as Angola, would erupt in violence. He reached out to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to explore the possibility of offering some kind of education to his charges.

By 1995, the New Orleans seminary began offering a few classes at the prison, which is America’s largest, housing some 6,300 inmates.

Since then, 312 Angola inmates have earned B.A. degrees in Christian ministry, and 80 of them are still working as field ministers in prisons across the state. The New Orleans seminary now runs identical prison programs in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.

In 2011, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, began offering a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies at Darrington Unit, a maximum security prison 30 miles south of Houston.

Calvin College, Appalachian Bible College, Trinity International University, North Park University and Columbia International University — all evangelical schools — have since started their own prison seminary programs.

For many seminary leaders, teaching prisoners is simply what their Christian faith demands.

“We tell people that as an institution it’s our mission to train people to go into the darkest places in the world and to be the light of Christ,” said Dew. “Most of our faculty see it for what it is — an opportunity to fulfill our mission.”

For prison administrators, the programs are attractive for another reason: They cost the state little or nothing. The prisons are normally responsible only for conducting initial screenings, interviewing applicants and providing transportation to the unit where the learning takes place. For that they get a host of tangible benefits: fewer disciplinary infractions and free labor in grief counseling and conflict resolution from program graduates.

“It changes the culture of the prison from within,” said Burl Cain, a former warden at Angola who now heads the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation. “They calm it down. You get rid of gangs. It really makes a difference.”

On their way out of their Biblical Hebrew class on a recent Thursday, the inmates at Nash Correctional lined up to shake the instructor’s hand, a weekly routine the students initiated.

“It’s making me a better person,” said 41-year-old Marquis McKenzie, who was sentenced to life for first-degree murder. “I think differently now. I read well, speak well, write well and think well.”

Professors said the students’ abilities vary, but they noted the inmates were all hardworking and tenacious.

Indeed, many inmates said they feel they’ve been offered a real opportunity to make something of their lives. And they said they look forward to imparting some of the wisdom they’ve acquired to younger inmates just coming in.

“Being in prison can be so dehumanizing,” said Bryce Williams, 36, who is serving an 18-year sentence for second-degree murder. “You don’t have any autonomy. That’s stripped away. So you start to think: ‘How can I effect change?’ This program has opened up doors. It affords you an opportunity to be human.”