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.
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.
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.”
Latter-day Saints and civil rights leaders are making plans for a collaboration to foster education and economic empowerment in urban centers across the country.
Officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the NAACP met in Salt Lake City earlier this month to continue hashing out plans for an “education and employment initiative” to be started in cities from Baltimore to San Francisco.
“They changed; they’re singing a new song,” the Rev. Amos Brown, chair of the NAACP’s interreligious relations committee, told fellow black Baptist clergy in Washington, D.C., about his recent meeting in Utah. “They got a new walk, a new talk and they have admitted that there were checkered instances in the past that they were engaged in racial ideas and practices.”
The collaboration, scheduled to launch next year, comes as the LDS church marks the 40th anniversary of the “revelation” about race that then-President Spencer W. Kimball declared he received. According to that revelation, the Mormon priesthood was no longer limited by color, opening the way for blacks to have leadership positions.
In May, current President Russell M. Nelson joined with top church and NAACP officials in a call for “greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.”
Standing next to him, on the 64th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional, NAACP President Derrick Johnson spoke of their shared hope that “all peoples can work together in harmony and should collaborate more on areas of common interest.”
The dialogue between the two groups started officially this spring when the LDS church hosted a “unity luncheon” for NAACP board members in Salt Lake City. That was followed by the first-time speech of a top LDS leader at the civil rights organization’s annual meeting in July. Then NAACP board members attended a portion of the recent Mormon biannual conference.
The collaboration will be based on internal LDS “self-reliance” programs, which church leaders say they hope will enhance the employment opportunities and financial well-being of participants.
Ahmad Corbitt, a spokesman for the church who recently directed missionaries in the Caribbean, said the most recent meetings focused on making materials and manuals for the initiative appropriate for people of all faiths and no faith.
Topics include personal finances, entrepreneurial advice and getting a “better education for a better job.”
Planners anticipate the programs will primarily be attended by African-Americans and be held in black or Latino churches, Mormon meetinghouses and recreation centers in cities including Atlanta, Chicago and Camden, N.J.
“We are starting in five cities and we’re trying to serve our brothers and sisters who most need our service in those cities,” said Corbitt. “We’re coming together to do that and to identify them and get them enrolled in these courses or groups that will make a real difference in terms of their education and employment and really can change the course of their lives for many of them, is our hope.”
Corbitt, who previously was the African-American president of the stake, or regional area of Mormons, in Cherry Hill, N.J., said the church’s programs usually occur once a week for 12 weeks. But the duration and frequency of the collaborative programs may be different.
Brown, in an interview, said he believes the LDS church is focused on fostering better education and employment opportunities through the initiative rather than building its membership of 16 million people worldwide.
“They did not come with any hidden agenda of proselytizing,” said Brown, who also is the social justice chair of the National Baptist Convention, USA. “It was made clear up front that they were concerned about what the church today needed to do of substance to address the challenges of African-Americans and other marginalized people in inner-city communities.”
Martin Estacio was shelling out $800 per month for a health plan that didn’t fit his two-state lifestyle.
The retired San Bernardino firefighter lives between Oklahoma and California. But his health insurance policy, purchased in Oklahoma, didn’t cover non-emergency care outside the state.
So Estacio dropped his plan this month and took a leap of faith. He joined Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHM), an alternative to health insurance that offers a religious approach to covering medical bills.
Health care ministries such as CHM are essentially cost-sharing programs. Members’ monthly fees are applied directly to other members’ medical bills, no matter where they live in the U.S. Members also pray for each other, and often send notes of support and encouragement.
“What led me to look into it was financial,” says Estacio, 58. “When I started to realize it’s based on biblical principles where you help your brother out, that’s what really clinched me.”
A health care sharing ministry is primarily a “community of faith,” says Michael Gardner, spokesman for Christian Care Ministry, which operates the Medi-Share program. Medi-Share has roughly 300,000 members as of June, he says.
But let’s be clear: Christian health care ministries are not insurance. You must attend church regularly. You must agree to abstain from certain behaviors, such as “sexual immorality” and drug abuse. Preventive care, routine prescriptions and mental health care may not be reimbursed. Forget about abortion. Coverage for your preexisting conditions will likely be limited — at least initially.
Estacio pays $150 per month for his membership, plus quarterly payments of about $30 that offer him a higher level of reimbursement.
He’s responsible for the first $500 on each medical incident before the ministry’s sharing kicks in, but only for allowed services. CHM’s list of non-covered services includes “psychological treatment,” medical supplies and equipment, immunizations, maintenance prescriptions and bills related to drug abuse.
“You have to try to live a good lifestyle,” Estacio says. “You can’t be drinking and smoking. It’s on you.”
Membership in health care sharing ministries has ballooned since passage of Obamacare, in part because the health law provides an exemption for members. If you belong to a qualified health care sharing ministry, you don’t have to pay the Obamacare tax penalty for not having insurance.
About 1 million Americans participate nationwide, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. Texas has the most members; California places second.
There are more than 100 ministries across the U.S., though the vast majority are small Mennonite churches, says alliance President Dave Weldon, a doctor and former Florida congressman. The three largest ministries are CHM, Medi-Share and Samaritan Ministries International, he says.
All the ministries are Christian at this point, though Weldon says there’s an attempt to start a Jewish sharing ministry.
“It’s our Christian practice of how we bear one another’s burdens,” says James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries, which has about 227,000 members nationwide.
Samaritan members, who share about $23 million a month, mail their monthly fees directly to other members facing medical bills, along with notes of support, Lansberry says.
Each ministry works differently, but you can generally expect to pay a monthly membership fee. You may be responsible for all of your own routine and preventive medical costs in addition to paying a set amount before reimbursements kick in.
“In effect, they become sort of like catastrophic programs,” Weldon says. “But that’s true for a lot of plans on the Obamacare exchanges as well.”
Unlike catastrophic insurance plans, there’s no contract with health care sharing ministries, he says. That means there’s no guarantee that your bills will be covered.
“However, most of them have always paid their members when they have medical bills,” Weldon says.
Because there’s no guarantee, and because the ministries limit coverage, Sabrina Corlette has two words for you: “Buyer beware.”
“Read the fine print,” says Corlette, research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “Make sure you truly understand what you’re getting with these plans.”
Coverage Caps And Covered Services
Some of these ministries put dollar limits on coverage, a practice that Obamacare ended for most commercial health plans.
“If you’re fairly young and fairly healthy, you may never face that,” says Janet Coffman, associate professor of health policy at University of California-San Francisco. But “some people have catastrophic illnesses that may cost millions of dollars.”
Most health care sharing ministries don’t cover preventive care such as mammograms, colonoscopies and birth control, and some don’t cover mental health care, addiction treatment and other services, Coffman says.
Since monthly fees are generally less than health insurance premiums, members can save money on those costs, says Medi-Share’s Gardner.
“Because it’s so much less expensive, I can be a good steward of my finances and set some money aside,” he says.
Health care sharing ministries aren’t required to cover preexisting conditions.
As a result, “a lot of these plans have waiting periods or limitations” on them, says Coffman.
You may have to wait one to three years — or longer — to be reimbursed for preexisting conditions. And you may face a limit on reimbursement.
Providers ‘Willing To Take Cash’
Medi-Share has a network of providers with which it has negotiated rates, though members are not limited to it, Gardner says.
Samaritan does not have such a network.
“Patients are treated by providers as cash pay,” Lansberry says. “Members make their own choice.”
In these cases, if you have a doctor you want to keep, would she be willing to see you as a cash customer?
“We’ve never had trouble with members losing their doctors,” Lansberry says. “Doctors are almost always willing to take cash.”
But remember: You may have to cover the entire cost of the bill and wait for reimbursement.
“Should you have to be hospitalized, could you afford it upfront?” Corlette asks.
The ministries encourage you to negotiate for lower prices with providers, though they usually go to the bargaining table for you when the bills are large.
Right To Appeal
Health care sharing ministries are not regulated by government agencies that oversee commercial health insurance.
If you don’t agree with how much you’re being reimbursed — or whether you’re being reimbursed at all — your only recourse will likely be an internal appeals process.
State regulatory agencies wouldn’t have any power to help you, says Janice Rocco, deputy insurance commissioner at the California Department of Insurance.
We “encourage people to obtain commercial health insurance, which they know they can count on if they have a serious health crisis in the future,” she says.
Estacio hasn’t had to request reimbursement from his health care ministry yet, and he has money set aside for health care expenses that wouldn’t be eligible for reimbursement.
But he’s not worried.
“I’m confident,” he says. “I have faith in it.”
For two and a half years, Ja’mel Armstrong and Matt Ness have jointly led One Church, a congregation striving to be diverse in a neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., that is more interracial than most.
It’s a work in progress, they acknowledge, but the African-American and white co-pastors say they believe their congregation, which is close to 50 percent black and 50 percent white, is more fulfilling than the more racially segregated churches they used to lead.
“On our own, we just didn’t feel like that’s who we were meant to be,” said Ness, who formerly led a mostly white church. “The picture we believed in was much broader than the local church I was pastoring and the local church Ja’mel was pastoring.”
The co-pastors’ congregation is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church — a small denomination that claims to be one of the most diverse in the country. One Church is part of a trend reported by scholars this month: Multiracial churches are on the rise and so is the percentage of U.S. congregants who attend them.
The percentage of U.S. multiracial congregations almost doubled between 1998 and 2012, from 6.4 percent to 12 percent, according to a study published in June in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. In the same period, the percentage of U.S. congregants attending an interracial church has reached almost one in five, advancing from 12.7 percent to 18.3 percent. The 2012 statistics are the latest available.
Co-authors Kevin Dougherty, a sociology professor at Baylor University, and Michael Emerson, provost at North Park University, defined multiracial congregations as ones in which no single racial or ethnic group constitutes more than 80 percent of the people in the pews.
But the co-authors point out that interracial congregations have long faced a number of challenges. And their recent findings show that while the average percentage of black congregants in multiracial congregations has increased, the percentage of Latinos in those kinds of churches has decreased in the same period.
“When you bring groups, different ethnic groups, together in a congregation, they come with different cultures, and those cultures include all types of expectations,” said Dougherty, citing music styles and food choices. “To help them develop a sense of shared identity above and beyond those cultural differences is a key part of the adaptability necessary for a multiracial congregation to succeed.”
Ness, co-pastor of the Louisville church, alternates preaching with Armstrong. He said before One Church opened its doors, they formulated a nontraditional approach to music. The worship team includes a gospel-style keyboardist, a blues, rock and country guitarist and a jazzy drummer and bassist. Singers represent a range of genres.
“We didn’t want to be defined by a particular style and so we didn’t tell you to stand up. We didn’t tell you to lift your hands. We didn’t tell you how to worship,” said Armstrong. “The goal was: If you are naturally contemplative in your worship style, then you be that. If you are naturally expressive, then you be that.”
It didn’t work for everyone. Armstrong said there was a gradual “mass exodus” from the 250-attendee first service in January 2016, with the congregation dropping to about 50. The congregation has since doubled to 100 after attracting new congregants.
The Rev. Michael Davis, the African-American teaching pastor at 10-year-old Downtown Church in Memphis, Tenn., said intentionality is key to multiracial churches. His congregation strives to have leaders of different races regularly preaching and making announcements. The church avoids identifying with political parties and instead seeks to foster an environment where various viewpoints can be aired.
“So nobody is trying to suffocate the identity of any of our minorities,” said Davis, who co-leads the fledging congregation with its white founder, Richard Rieves. “It’s intentionality, it’s empowerment and it’s sacrifice.”
The congregation, which Davis calls a “multiracial/class plant” or offshoot of the mostly white Second Presbyterian Church, meets in Clayborn Temple, a historic church that once housed a predominantly white congregation and later a mostly black one.
But Davis acknowledges that his Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation that is 70 percent white and 30 percent minority (mostly blacks but including some Asians and Latinos) hasn’t achieved all its milestones toward integration, including among its smaller community groups attended by some of the 300 who worship together on Sunday.
“Are we doing it perfectly?” Davis said. “No. Because there are some times where I have to talk to some of my groups that are predominantly white and say, ‘How do we get more diversity?’”
As they strive for inclusiveness, leaders of multiracial churches say they sometimes feel like they are on their own without many role models.
Ness, 39, who has pastored for 16 years, said, “I feel like I’m brand new at my job when I started this.” Armstrong, 38, agreed that the nontraditional church stands out from others: “We almost feel a lot of times that we’re on an island.”
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a Chicago Theological Seminary professor, informally polled former students and found they have seen evidence of the new survey’s findings about the growth of interracial congregations.
“One woman graduate who identified as white indicated that she had ‘pastored a black church for seven years,’” said Thistlethwaite, whose seminary is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. “A number of graduates emphasized, however, that there have been congregations that have been racially diverse for many years, with racially diverse pastoral leadership.”
The survey, based on data from the National Congregations Study, also found an increase in black clergy leading multiracial congregations, rising from less than 5 percent in both 1998 and 2006 to 17 percent in 2012.
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, said the willingness of white congregants to join churches with black pastors is a positive sign, given the long history of segregated Sunday morning services.
“Although white people have always been willing to appropriate style and music from black churches, they have resisted black leadership,” Gilkes said. “This new moment in American religious life could be quite helpful in countering many negative current events in the area of race relations.”
Despite the challenges of interracial cooperation, Davis said, he sees rewards as he helps lead his Memphis congregation.
“I experience the body of Christ more, the wider scope of it, and so it broadens my perspective of who the Lord is,” he said. “Being in a multiracial church, you see the beauty of different cultural backgrounds, different walks of life.”
Reading the biblical narratives of Joseph, David, Nehemiah, and others, we often hear them described as political actors like the kings and pharaohs they served, not as corporate leaders. But the actions they took to trade agricultural commodities, do construction projects, and rebuild walls were more corporate than governmental. These biblical leaders lived in times when the hard separation we now perceive between public or political sector actions and private or corporate actions was not so clear. The kings of the Bible could and did tax, but just as often we see them building and engaging in commerce.
Many of the most substantial global entities today are corporations, not political entities. Apple’s $1 trillion market capitalization, a business first, exceeds the GDP of all but 16 countries globally. The combined total employees of the US tech giants Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft now exceeds the population of over 75 of the world’s 233 nations.
God can and has directly used the business models and resources created by corporations to do tremendous good. Some corporations like ServiceMaster have had openly Christian CEOs who made it clear that their faith defined their leadership practices and principles. There have also been many examples of Christian entrepreneurs using corporate wealth to build charitable foundations. Joseph Newton Pew, the Presbyterian founder of Sun Oil Company (Sunoco), provided the resources to fund The Pew Charitable Trusts, which his children said honored his “religious conviction that good works should be done quietly.” Episcopalian J.K. Lilly and his heirs used their pharmaceutical corporation earnings to fund the Lilly Endowment, which is the fifth largest charitable foundation in the world ranked by assets and has been historically committed to “deepen and enrich the lives of American Christians.”
A lot of church and para-church entities have also found their greatest success emulating, practicing, or employing corporate business models. World Vision CEO Rich Stearns was formerly CEO of both Parker Brothers and Lenox before leading this more than billion dollar enterprise. He also has an MBA from the Wharton School. Compassion International CEO Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado is a Harvard Business School graduate. LifeWay Christian Resources, which serves the Southern Baptist Convention, has theologically trained leadership and a key executive structure that is distinctly corporate with the same slate of “C-level” executive positions you would find in any Fortune 500 company.
But Christians inside global business corporations can often change lives and express the love of Christ far beyond the work of local churches and para-church entities. The executives who implement free lunch in Silicon Valley technology firms keep employees in the building and boost productivity, but the same free lunch benefit in their Asian or African factory may be the best meal of the day for its workers.
Corporate business structures magnify outcomes both good and bad. Leadership failings echo through an organization on a global scale and can be devastating. The most centrally controlled “corporate” denomination, the Catholic Church, has been extraordinarily effective in transforming lives through schools, hospitals, and other global deployments of wealth and resources to effect social change and Kingdom outcomes. But the Catholic Church also illustrates some of the perils of centrally managed corporate type structures. From the indulgences that led in part to the Reformation to the recent covering up of sexual abuse by priests, it is clear that just deploying corporate management structures and tactics do not assure positive outcomes.
But what could Kingdom corporate leadership mean? Imagine if Apple CEO Tim Cook were to decide that pursuing Kingdom outcomes was of equal or greater importance than shareholder value creation. Assume that this might even increase shareholder value. More people would be employed and fed, healthcare would improve, consumption would go up, families stabilized, and poverty reduced globally.
Perhaps it is time for the further development of a corporatist theology. The faith, work, and economics movement is a good start. The examples in Amy Sherman’s book Kingdom Calling lay a foundation and Tim Keller’s theology of vocation outlined in Every Good Endeavor point the way, but we need thoughtfully considered next steps for those who want to more effectively use corporate entities or their positions in them to bring global Kingdom impact.
Corporatism in this sense means having the principles, doctrine, or system of corporate organization in an economic unit. A corporatist approach in Kingdom work could include a nonprofit or for-profit entity, even a church, that uses legal and business structures and strategies to accomplish its goals.
The focus would be:
- Strategic collaboration between people with functional expertise to most efficiently use economic resources
- Technologically enabled value creation activities
- The pursuit of the common good
We need a “corporatist theology” to reach these ends better, and perhaps the milestone that Apple has achieved will become the most effective model for taking the whole Gospel of the Kingdom to the entire world.