“You ought to have to go to jail as part of seminary education,” was the first thing that crossed the mind of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on the fall day in 2005 when he was released on bond after 24 hours in jail.
His crime was officially termed civil disobedience, but Wilson-Hartgrove D’06 prefers to describe what he was doing at the time of his arrest: “I was taking direct action to block the doors of the (state) prison so the required witnesses couldn’t enter.” Without those witnesses, the state could not carry out the scheduled executions.
He and a fellow protester were handcuffed and transported to jail, where bond was set at $5,000 each. That was more than Sarah Jobe D’06 and other activists could raise, so she and fellow residents of Rutba House, an intentional Christian community near Duke’s East Campus, left their friends in jail until the following day.
Months earlier, Jobe had been among those arrested at a previous protest, but that night she and the others had been luckly. They were charged and released on their own recognizance.
These experiences raised unnerving questions for the Duke Divinity School students about theological education, specifically about whether it was preparing them to be the church in the world.
“I realized that in sharing a cell for a mere 24 hours I got a heck of an education about the criminal justice system’s impact on people’s lives,” says Wilson-Hartgrove, who breaks into a smile as he recalls the response of a cellmate.
“When I told the guy why I was in jail, he laughed and turned around to the whole cell block and said real loud, ‘Hey, you m-----------s, this guy is here trying to stop those m-----------s from killing one of us m------------s!’”
A guard had handed Wilson-Hartgrove a rolled up bed mat and told him to find a place on the floor. The cellblock beds were all taken, and he and his companion brought to 40 the number of men on the floor.
“When the guards called out ‘Count!’ we had to put our mats on the floor like in kindergarten so heads could be counted,” he explains. But this was not kindergarten. Wilson-Hartgrove describes it as “a little window into a big social problem.”
As the men began to talk with Wilson-Hartgrove, he realized that his cellmates had known each other for years. One put it bluntly: “We’ve all known each other all our lives, man, same ZIP code and everything. I mean, the train that stops at death row starts right here in the county jail.”
Wilson-Hartgrove walked out of jail the next day with a head full of questions, among them, “What is going on that the criminalization of this population has so increased in such a short period of time?” and, “As followers of Christ, shouldn’t we and others think seriously about the social conditions affecting the lives of our incarcerated brothers and sisters?”
His night in the county jail reminded him, says Wilson-Hartgrove, that “Jesus promised to meet us in the prisons, so that is one of the places we ought to be reading and reflecting on Scripture together.” He wanted to go back to that cellblock, and to take others with him. His determination became the seed for Project TURN, a partnership between Chaplaincy Services of the North Carolina Department of Corrections and the students and faculty of Duke Divinity School.
Together he and Jobe, who currently serves as director of the program, approached faculty members at the Divinity School to ask for advice, including Bishop (Ret.) Kenneth Carder, who teachers the course, “Restorative Justice, Prison Ministry, and the Church.”
Jobe believed Project TURN could provide an opportunity for people to expand, and even readjust, their notions of prison ministry. A prison classroom could become a learning environment where every participant’s humanity—prisoners, Duke students, and faculty—was filtered through the light of Christ, reassuring them that all are made in God’s image.
“I hope people from outside [the prison] will allow themselves to see and expect mutuality in this ministry,” says Jobe. “It is not about going in and giving to incarcerated people, but about being invited into their space to experience what they have to teach and offer us. We have a common humanity that can be reaffirmed through such concrete experiences as reading Scripture and literature together, and discussing issues of faith and life across the table from one another.”
She and Wilson-Hartgrove spent a year developing their vision, and an additional year fine-tuning logistics with the prison system. The acronym TURN—Transform, Unlock, Renew—was inspired by Romans 2:12. The passage “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is one that Jobe says helps her “re-center myself in the work we’re doing.”
Getting into prison is not as easy as one might think. Visitors who volunteer to lead programs create more work, straining limited resources and staffing. With new seminary students participating in Project TURN each semester, there’s increased demand for prison staff to train them on prison regulations. There is also competition for space.
In collaboration with alumna Betty Brown D’96, director of correctional chaplaincy in North Carolina, Project TURN moved from vision to reality. Brown became a staunch advocate of the program, and helped introduce the program not only at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, but also at the Durham Correctional Center.
Despite the difficulties involved, Jobe says the outcome has been worth the effort. She recognizes the need to be flexible and persistent. “I try not to take no for an answer. I know folks are busy, but I’ve also learned that they will be honest with me if they don’t think they can help.”
The first class began January 2008 at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women. The “Spiritual Autobiography” course attracted five incarcerated women and five Duke Divinity School students. There have since been four additional courses, including “Novels and the Spiritual Journey,” “Paul’s Writings in Prison,” “Riffing on Scripture: The Bible in Art, Literature, and Culture,” and “The Life and Thought of Martin Luther King.” All classes are free, and Project TURN provides books and supplies for incarcerated students. Teachers openly acknowledge that the class has a specifically Christian focus and is a partnership with Duke Divinity School training people for Christian ministry. Duke students can receive independent study credit for their participation.
The annual cost of Project TURN, which is supported entirely by donations from individuals and churches, is $14,000.
The program has gained a reputation on the inside for courses that require serious self-reflection. As a result, the women who participate self-select. Jobe says women have told her, “I heard about your class, but I wasn’t ready to take it. I think I’m ready now, though, to do the work.” Applicants for the class must write an essay stating why they want to participate, and how they envision the experience will challenge them and spur personal growth.
Jobe begins each class with the expectation that she will learn from the women around her. She is committed to naming each student’s worth and to building every student’s confidence. At the end of each semester, she practices what she calls “narrative grading.” In a letter to each student, Jobe identifies the strengths and gifts she has observed, and the additional ways she envisions the student’s growth—if the student is willing to do the necessary work.
“A lot of the inmates have had negative experiences with school in the past,” Jobe says. “I want to offer a different model, one that does not rank individuals.” Both Jobe and Wilson-Hartgrove believe that success is measured by the transformation of lives.
“When we hear someone say that they understand the world around them differently—whether it’s the system of incarceration and people on the 'outside' or in prisons—that’s success to us,” says Jobe, who makes an effort to stay connected with former students, both in prison and after their release.
“As I keep up with folks I can see them taking on new life paths, going into ministry centers and academic programs that they would have previously never considered, or thought themselves worthy of. I hear them saying that being in our class made them self-confident enough to imagine a new life.”
Jobe sees Duke students change as well. She hopes that they will practice ministry differently. “When there is a new level of comfort across social divides, there is a new ability to imagine oneself as a pastor taking congregants into prisons. All of a sudden they have a broadened imagination of what God might be calling them to do.”
Isaac Villegas D’06, a Mennonite pastor who began teaching at the Durham Correctional Facility last summer, co-taught the course “Paul’s Writings in Prison” with New Testament Professor Douglas Campbell. His incarcerated students, he says, soon recognized that prison is not foreign to the Christian tradition.
“They are in prison for very different reasons than St. Paul, or Martin Luther King Jr., or the early church bishop Ignatius of Antioch,” he says. “Yet this recognition compels them to ponder what it would be like to be imprisoned simply for their faith.”
Three years since Project TURN’s first class, the vision is still growing. Interest within the Divinity School’s larger community is high. More students and professors than can be accommodated want to be involved in this life-giving ministry.
The leaders of Project TURN have to discern what can be done with limited resources. There is the dream of creating programs that focus on building supportive relationships with newly released inmates. There is the dream of going into the federal prisons and their hospitals.
“After three years, I am still surprised at the number of regulations by which prisons are bound,” says Jobe. Still, her advice to those interested in prison ministry is “to dream big and to keep pressing for new opportunities, even when met with resistance.”
She and Wilson-Hartgrove keep imagining new opportunities for their incarcerated brothers and sister. “We try not to let regulations box us in,” says Jobe. “We are open to what new and exciting things God might have us do in these spaces.”
Enuma Okoro D’03 is a freelance writer and retreat/workshop leader based in Durham, N.C. She is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books, 2010), and co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, 2010).