The months of May and June are always a special time for school commencements. And, each year, I really enjoy my opportunities to give commencement addresses at universities and seminaries across the country. But the one I gave last week was very special indeed.
Last Wednesday evening, June 11, I was blessed and honored to give the commencement address at Sing Sing Prison. The New York Theological Seminary offers a program of theological study leading to the degree of Masters of Professional Studies, with all courses taking place inside the walls of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. In twenty-six years this extraordinary and courageous seminary training program has graduated hundreds who then go on to ministry, both inside the prison system of New York and back in the community when their sentences are finished.
I have often told the story of the first time I visited this unusual and inspiring program at Sing Sing. My book, The Soul of Politics, was being read by the students as part of their seminary curriculum, and I received a letter from the prison inmates themselves, inviting me to meet with them and discuss my book. It sounded interesting, so I wrote back to ask when they would like me to come. A young man wrote to me on behalf of his fellow Sing Sing students saying, "Well, we're free most nights!" He went on, "We're kind of a captive audience here!" The prison authorities were very accommodating and I got to spend several hours with about 70 guys in a crowded room deep in the bowels of the infamous penal institution.
The animated book conversation was one of the most stimulating and rigorous of any I've ever had. I vividly remember much of that discussion, and especially the riveting comment of one young man who said to me, "Jim, most of us at Sing Sing come from just about four or five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train in my neighborhood when you are nine or ten years old, and the train ends up here....at Sing Sing." But this young man had experienced a spiritual conversion inside of that prison, and was now enrolled in the New York Seminary program training pastors to work inside the prison system and to go back and work in those neighborhoods from which they had come. After the session that night, the young man came up to me to say goodbye, looked me in the eye, and said, "When I get out, I am going to go back and stop that train."
A few years later, I was in New York City to speak at a town meeting on poverty. Guess who was up front, helping to lead the meeting? I immediately recognized two of the young men I met that night at Sing Sing--Julio Medina and Darren Ferguson. Last week, Julio came back to the commencement at what NYTS calls their "North Campus," now as an illustrious alumnus who spends his days running a very successful drug rehabilitation program in NYC. Darren was being the newly installed pastor of a church in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Queens where some recent shootings had him out on the streets that night instead of at the Sing Sing commencement.
These are very special graduates. To get to where they were last Wednesday night, twelve men had to overcome so many obstacles. I told them, in my commencement address, that they "had an advantage." The advantage they have is in knowing what faith really means, how much it costs, and how it can completely change your life and the world. They know that faith is for the big stuff. And they know that if you have faith, even the size of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains. And that's what these men had to move to get to this place on a warm Wednesday night in the visitors' room inside Sing Sing prison. They got to take off their prison jumpsuits, and put on shirts, ties, and graduation robes to wear in front of their beaming and tearful mothers and fathers, wives and children, extended family, and so many friends.
Theo Harris was selected by his fellow students to give the "class reflection." He spoke of the "School of Hard Knocks" whose three core curricula were "street education, peer pressure, and ghetto economics." He said all his fellow class members had to go through the school of hard knocks before they got to go to this school of preparation for the ministry. Theo said he had learned "the greatest lesson of my life....that no one is beyond redemption. That is what sustained me, that is what motivated me, and that is what brought me to where I am today: redeemed." He then named each of his fellow graduates, observed their special gifts and vocations, and then concluded, "We have expressed our desire to make a meaningful contribution to our community. Now, all that remains is for us to go out among them, roll up our sleeves, and really make a difference."
It was a night of rich gratitude and profound hope. And while I have often been inspired by the faces of the young bright graduates facing me on brilliant spring days of school commencements, I have never felt more grateful and more hopeful than I did looking into the spiritually-chiseled faces of these redeemed graduates on a summer's night at Sing Sing prison. Thanks be to God.