Handlon’s Priesthood of Believers
Published by Calvin Seminary
Since 2015, the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) has been equipping new students to be Christ’s agents of renewal, offering 20 scholars each year the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Students of the CPI are also inmates, studying at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, where they are currently incarcerated. At the Handlon campus, students take the same liberal arts core courses as other Calvin University students at the Knollcrest campus, and then take courses specifically oriented toward faith and community leadership, through a partnership between the university and Calvin Theological Seminary.
Unlike students on the seminary and university’s Knollcrest campus, Handlon campus students face judgment from society due to their status as inmates.
“We all live in a world where the burden of proof is upon us that we are worthy of being loved. If that’s true in society generally, that’s true, squared, in an incarcerated setting,” said Reverend Dale Cooper, CPI professor. “Day after day after day, they are reminded that they are chunks of protoplasm. The thing that defines them is ‘you’re an inmate.’”
“If you want to preach to inmates, just remind them that they are of value in the sight of God,” said Cooper. “Several years ago one of my students [an inmate] asked me ‘Pastor Cooper, do you look upon me more as an inmate who happens to be a student or as a student who happens to be an inmate?’ I could say to him, “I look upon you, with me, as one who is understood, accepted, loved, treasured, and valued by the God who pulls us together.”
Gary Burge, dean of the faculty and professor of New Testament, had never stepped foot inside a prison until joining the seminary’s faculty in 2017. To him, the chance to teach students at Handlon the New Testament has been both a privilege and an opportunity for personal transformation.
“The fullest transformation for me was understanding these students as friends and neighbors,” Burge said. “Moreover, the students coming through our program have complex, thoughtful lives, and spiritual maturity of great depth.”
“As Christians, the priesthood of believers doctrine not only shows us our collective impact as the body of Christ—including those incarcerated—but also shows us the direct priestly role we all can take on as transformed people.”
Rick, a CPI student, recently reflected on his experience in the program.
“I learned to grow into a young man who deserves to be seen as human,” wrote Rick. “Before Calvin, I was simply a scarred (and scared) little boy fearful of life. After Calvin…I am a man who seeks to bring hope to others who live in the strongholds…that I once resided in.”
“Rick’s told me continually ‘what I have come to discover through CPI…is my
worthwhileness as a human being, and that my insights are valued,’” said Cooper.
“The days I share with our class inspire, uplift, and direct my life,” Rick wrote. “As John the Baptist leapt in the womb, so my Spirit leaps on these days. I crave a community such as this on a more daily basis.”
It’s up to men like Rick, through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, to make this true through their unique, yet universal, priesthood.
By Matt Kucinski, Assistant Director of Media Relations, Calvin University
This story was modified from “When the Numbers Begin to Fade,” an article appearing in Calvin University News & Stories, 2021.
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