Prison seminary program expands in California

By Gillian Flaccus

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"You're talking about men with bad backgrounds, men who have never completed anything, never had a job," he said. "What happens is the men started helping each other and they went from C's to B's to A's — and when they started getting A's, they started doing outstanding. It blew our minds."

On a recent evening, about 50 men settled into the pews in the sweltering chapel at Norco to watch and discuss the week's video lesson. Inmates used highlighters tucked in the pockets of their prison blues to follow along in thick workbooks and others clutched Bibles bristling with Post-It notes as Daniels dissected passages from the Old Testament.

Hands shot into the air when he asked who knew Zechariah 4:6 by heart.

"It's very easy, OK? Who knows it by heart? I know somebody's got to know it by heart," said Daniels. "'Not by my might, nor my power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.'"

Former inmate Paul Deaton was a student in the first pilot class. When he started, he could read at a sixth-grade level and was overwhelmed by writing seven-page essays, reading college-level books and memorizing Scripture. When he was paroled last summer, he said an exit exam found he could read at the college level.

Deaton, who served seven years behind bars, is now pursuing a bachelor's in theology at a Bible college in Fresno and plans to get a master's degree so he can teach at the college level and perhaps lead his own church. He is also helping train groups of volunteers to teach in prisons statewide.

His college courses this semester include philosophy, critical thinking, sociology, world culture, Old Testament theology, New Testament survey and an English research and writing class — all topics that the prison training touched on.

"If you make yourself available, the Lord will use you," Deaton said in a recent phone interview from his college dorm room. "The Holy Spirit is directing the show and he will move us to go wherever he needs help."

Whether the program's graduates will have success starting new churches remains to be seen.

Planting churches is extraordinarily hard work, even for those who don't have a prison record, and for every ministry that survives many fail, said Kurt Frederickson, an associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of pastoral theology. The inmates' life experience, however, could redefine traditional notions about what a successful church is.

"It would be very difficult for a graduate who's just spent the last four years in jail to become the pastor of a suburban church, but that same person who moves back to the place where he grew up could create a congregation that fits his neighborhood and that could be amazing," Frederickson said.

It would be hard for such a minister to build a megachurch like Rick Warren's massive Saddleback Church in Orange County, he said.

"It'll never become a Saddleback and we'll never hear about it — but it could be really transformative."

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