The journey begins with a drive south from Houston along a small farm-to-market road lined with fields of livestock and crops managed by some of Texas' most violent offenders.
After taking a lonely road to Darrington prison's front gate, Southwestern Seminary professors must pass through a series of security checkpoints, past the gates topped with razor wire, through a metal detector and pat-down, and down a hall to the education wing.
Housed in this maximum security unit, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's new bachelor's degree in biblical studies gives inmates the opportunity to experience life transformation through studying the Bible as well as share that transformation with others.
Southwestern, in its first convocation inside Darrington's chapel, signified an innovative venture between the seminary and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Celebrating the launch of the new program, seminary administrators joined state Sens. John Whitmire and Dan Patrick as well as TDCJ leadership, special guests and the 39 inmates who compose the inaugural class.
Ben Phillips, associate dean at Southwestern's Houston campus and director of the extension program, welcomed everyone to the convocation at the Darrington unit of the Texas penal system.
"We are here to celebrate what God is going to be doing and how God is going to use these men and the lives they touch to bring honor and glory to His name," Phillips said, "because we believe above all else that God uses His Gospel, given in His Word, to change people's lives, to take the worst of the worst, to take sinners and transform them into Christlike saints."
"I've been in literally scores of prisons, and this is a new experience for me, to be at a seminary inside a TDCJ facility, and Darrington will certainly be recognized for being a trailblazer," Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told the media in a news conference prior to the convocation on Aug. 29.
Whitmire stepped across party lines to join Patrick, his fellow committee member, in getting legislative approval for the program. In spring 2010, the two traveled with TDCJ officials and seminary administration to Louisiana's Angola Prison to see the program started by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which served as the model for Darrington's new program.
While in Louisiana, Whitmire told Angola's warden, "I've never seen so many people serving a life sentence with a smile on their face." Two days later, he committed with others to work toward a similar program in Texas.
TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston also commented on the trip to Angola.
"The one incredible thing with the seminary there, and what we know will be the case here, is that when you give offenders hope -- in this case, hope through faith and the ability to change their hearts and lives -- significant changes occur both with respect to the individuals involved and also those they reach and touch after they go through the program."
The 125-hour accredited bachelor's degree is taught and supervised by three full-time and two adjunct professors from Southwestern Seminary. Forty inmate-students were selected from approximately 700 applications, with each of them having at least 10 years before parole eligibility. Two preliminary classes began in March in order to refine the program. Over the summer, the Darrington students learned research and writing skills to prepare for the official start of the program in August, which consists of 15 credit hours. The fall semester began with 39 of the 40 students enrolled.
Everyone involved in the collaborative effort remarked about how amazed they were to go from the initial idea to preliminary classes in less than a year.
"We are grateful for all that God has done in this short one-year period," said Denny Autrey, dean of Southwestern's Houston campus who taught the first preliminary class.
The seminary hopes to add 40 students per year, as funding allows. Private funding supports the entire project, with no taxpayer money. Along with paying professors, generous donations provided furniture, computers, materials and books for the library.
Darrington Warden Brenda Chaney said, "We have worked hard to get to this point. We have 39 offenders now in this program, and they're all working hard also. We have formed a good relationship with Southwestern, and we're looking for amazing things to happen here."
"Only God could make this happen," Sen. Patrick said. "Everybody in this project from day one focused on how God can change lives."
As part of the program, its graduates will minister to other inmates.
"They will not only assist in mentoring and counseling other inmates at Darrington," Whitmire said, "but someday, when the graduation rate grows, they will go to other units and start impacting young non-violent inmates and help them turn their lives around because they will be returning to the streets of Texas."
Whitmire said of all the programs he's endorsed in his long tenure in the Texas Senate, including drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and rehabilitation programs, "this one is the big one."
Grove Norwood, chairman of the Heart of Texas Foundation, originated the idea for the seminary program in Texas prisons and sees the potential impact the degree can have on inmates as well as society upon their release.
"Over four years," Norwood said, "we believe that spiritual transformation will change a man here, and they will have a moral rehabilitation."
Southwestern President Paige Patterson said, "From the earliest moments of Christianity's founding, the prisoner was a very important individual." He cited Hebrews 13:3, saying, "Remember the prisoner as though you were bound with him."
Patterson, addressing the 39 inmate students during his convocation sermon, spoke of a life controlled by the Holy Spirit.
"If I'm ever to have the fruit of the Spirit in my life, God has to work an amazing and remarkable change ," Patterson said.
"The law serves its purposes, but the law never transformed anybody. It protects the social order to a certain degree, but more important still, the Bible says it is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. It's there to convict us of our need of a spiritual change."
Patterson concluded his sermon with a charge to the students to let their studies result in heart change.
"The end result is not just the accumulation of knowledge in the head," Patterson said. "The end result is a powerful moving of the Holy Spirit to make us new and create in us the fruit of the Spirit."
Keith Collier is director of news and information for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews). For a multimedia display of Southwestern's extension program at Darrington prison, go to www.swbts.edu/campusnews/story.cfm?id=2ACFB8DD-15C5-E47C-F9986CB6D43F0D7F
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