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Theology program for incarcerated women answers the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 call

‘I was in prison, and you came to visit me’

by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Dr. LaKeesha Walrond, president of New York Theological Seminary, addresses Master of Professional Studies graduates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. (Contributed photo)

Any self-respecting Christian seminary will teach its students that the Jesus sheep and goat story in Matthew 25 is a mandate to care for the less fortunate in society, including those in prison.

Some seminary students take this to heart by becoming prison chaplains, but New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) does not stop there. For decades, this unique seminary has focused on Jesus’ call for engagement with inner city social issues of poverty, underserved educational systems, racial disparity, and this year inaugurated a graduate theology program in a maximum security prison for women.

In 2019, when Dr. LaKeesha Walrond joined NYTS as its first female president and learned of the seminary’s long history of theology programs for incarcerated men, her immediate question was, “What about incarcerated women?”

A Master of Professional Studies (MPS) program was quickly scheduled at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in bucolic Westchester County, one hour north of New York City, and populated with close to 600 women, mainly from  the New York City area.

This summer, a class of nine incarcerated women joyfully received their master’s degree certificate in a festive ceremony performed by NYTS’ top management and faculty team, in front of attending family members, friends and community volunteers. Walrond said, “This program is really about restoring humanity and letting the women know they have transferable skills to prepare them for the best life they can have while on the inside and for when they come home.”

“Teaching in a maximum-security prison is a unique experience for seminary professors,” says Dr. Nancy Fields, who is the Assistant Professor of Supervised Ministry at NYTS and a key member of the teaching team. “The teacher learns from the student what to teach. The teacher is learning, and the student is learning. That is what I bring to this experience, because the students are teaching each other through small groups and assignments, in which they get an opportunity to share and bond. This is important in an environment where the women are conditioned not to trust because you always must watch your back.”

The MPS Program is chaired by Dr. Willie D. Francois III, who in addition to serving as Associate Professor of Liberation Theology at the seminary oversees the MPS program at the Bedford Hills prison and the seminary’s MPS program at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security male prison located on the Hudson River in the township of Ossining.

Of his experience as director of this seminary outreach effort, he says, “The MPS program furnishes the greatest opportunity, to date, to fulfill my vocation as an abolitionist as I attempt to do life with brilliant women and men curious about human potential, justice and the sacred.”

The graduates of New York Theological Seminary’s inaugural Master of Professional Studies program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In the background are NYTS administrators and faculty members and the prison superintendent. (Contributed photo)

The bold action by NYTS President Walrond to bring the seminary program to a female prison not only recognizes the increasing incarceration rate for women but demonstrates the seminary’s ability to carry forward the NYTS spirit of adapting to changing world situations, demonstrated since its inception in 1900.

A good example in 1968 was hiring Dr. George W. Webber as president. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a World War II veteran, Webber was tasked with rescuing the rapidly declining seminary located in a posh district between the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and the United Nations. He did this successfully by restructuring the seminary’s financials, selling the 12-story building, moving to rented space in downtown Manhattan and focusing on inner city ministry.

In the early 1980s, this realignment of the seminary’s outreach included a master’s program in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Since that launch, the program has graduated about 15 men per year. According to Francois, “The success of the program ranks well beyond our 0% recidivism rate during the last 10 to 12 years, though we take great pride in such metrics. More so, we marvel at what our graduates go home to produce as social workers, educators, anti-incarceration nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs and activists.”

The seminary’s ongoing adaptability to changing time is currently demonstrated in the recent announcement of a strategic partnership between New York Theological Seminay and Union Theological Seminary presided over by Union President the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones. Founded in 1836, UTS is the oldest private, independent, non-denominational seminary in the United States. It’s long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship. It lists prominent thinkers and change makers among its faculty and alumni; names like Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. Paul Tillich, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoffer and Dr. James Cone, as well as more luminaries like U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock and Dr. Cornel West.

The cooperation between two seminaries each experienced and progressive in their own ways and each with strong and dynamic female leadership bodes well not just for the seminaries, but for our increasingly separated world.

Such combined efforts are also promising for the ongoing efforts to secure for all, including those imprisoned, the human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. For those who enjoy observing synchronicities, it is an auspicious coincidence the partnership year of the two seminaries is the 75th anniversary year celebrating that declaration.

May the determined efforts these two New York City seminaries to advance progressive theology in an era of darkening forces serve as an inspiration for faith organizations and seminaries across the country as well as globally, while strengthening the Mathew 25 charge of increased community engagement in resolving social issues, including the recognition of the inborn dignity of all God’s children, including those incarcerated in our midst.

The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek is a proud graduate from the NYTS Master of Divinity and Doctor of Divinity programs and is excited about the seminary’s prison theology programs and its potential around the country and the world. Presbyterians worldwide will be pleased to know that Union Theological Seminary was founded in 1836 by Presbyterians.

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