School of Restorative Arts Stays Connected with Incarcerated Students
North Park Theological Seminary has enrolled more than 80 students through the School of Restorative Arts (SRA) at Stateville Correctional Center as part of the Seminary’s partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). SRA offers a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry (MACM) degree tailored to incarcerated students for reentry and reintegration into the greater church.
Face-to-face SRA classes, which normally engage Seminary students and faculty, alongside Stateville students, have been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer semester classes relied on the use of correspondence educational packets, explains SRA Director and Dean of Seminary Faculty Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom. Class materials were sent to the prison, and 15 Stateville students, who have been trained as writing advisors, served as academic coaches inside the prison to collect student assignments. “This fall, we are still doing all our teaching and learning via correspondence, and we have implemented other creative strategies for student interaction with one another while this pandemic continues,” says Clifton-Soderstrom.
During the pandemic, letters of encouragement from the outside community (professors, outside students, pastors and congregations, and more) were sent to Stateville students to share prayers and support, says Vickie Reddy, SRA’s assistant director. And some Stateville students have also sent their words of encouragement to the outside North Park community, she says. Stateville student Benny Rios wrote, “I believe that I can speak for all of us in here when I say that we really miss you all and cannot wait until our community can be reunited once again. We certainly have all of you in our prayers, and it is uplifting to know that you all continue to root for us and show us support in a grand way. The fellowship that we all have together is so amazing, and being in this situation only reminds me that I have something very special to look forward to when we once again can be united.”
COVID-19 sadly caused the death of two SRA Stateville students: Joseph Tremaine Wilson, whose Sankofa name was Big Fella, and Ronald “Rusty” Rice. Both were remembered in special Seminary memorial services, attended by the students’ families.
The Seminary will be expanding the SRA program later this fall to include a campus at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s facility in the IDOC system. Logan already has the capability to hold online, virtual classes. SRA has received 38 applications from the women at Logan and anticipates admitting a first cohort late in the fall semester, says Clifton-Soderstrom.
Dean David Kersten says the Seminary is “excited to have been given the green light by the IDOC to launch an SRA program in Logan Correctional Center and begin to work with a new group of women students starting this fall.”
Inside SRA students at Stateville also are collaborating with outside Seminary students and ECC pastors to support a church without walls effort in the prison. The Seminary is seeking grant funding from Lilly Endowment and the Mellon Foundation to support more efforts to build congregations in prison led by incarcerated leaders in partnership with outside ECC congregations. Clifton-Soderstrom says the Seminary will learn this fall whether additional grant funds are awarded.