Cultivating Civil Community

A group of 630 persons gathered on the campus of a small liberal arts university in Iowa this past week for what they call “Synod School.”  It’s like a “summer camp” for kids, parents, and even grandparents– but with better sleeping facilities (and a “step back in time” for those who lived in a college dorm room 50 years ago!).

The gathering of hundreds of Presbyterians from the six north central states comprising the “Synod of Lakes and Prairies” dates back to the 1950s.  This summer was its 66th year!  Persons attending as children and youth are now bringing their own children (or grandchildren!).  It’s a family affair, with activities and classes for all ages.

Synod School brings together some of the best musicians, teachers, preachers and discussion leaders.  Participants spend 8 to 10 hours each day doing crafts and arts or engaging in discussions relevant to the church, world, families, and personal growth.  The theme this year was “Cultivating Civil Community.”


I taught a course on Presbyterians Doin’ Justice” that focused on the initiatives of the Presbyterian Church in the past century to reduce injustice, violence, and inequality in the criminal justice system.  I learned as much as the participants in my class as I gathered materials and read historical documents.    Extensive work is done to support Committee Recommendations to the biennial General Assembly of the PC(USA).  The research and writing are comparable to the quality of most college-level textbooks.

Going back as early as 1910 the Presbyterian Church took a stand for reducing crime and victimization by improving societal attitudes toward offenders and reforming them; pushing for better education, moral training and job skills for youth; and replacing revenge with restorative justice.

The class focused on five criminal justice topics that have received the most attention by the PC(USA) in the past twenty years:

  • Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons
  • Moratorium on Capital Punishment
  • Gun Violence Prevention
  • Restorative Justice
  • Bail Reform

Criminologists and Criminal Justice professionals agree that citizen involvement and understanding of crime and justice are essential for reducing victimization and improving public safety in America.  “Stay tuned” as we take a closer look in the next few weeks at what we can do about crime and justice in America.  I value your following this weblog, and like reading and hearing your comments.   Thanks!

Tags       Synod School                   Bible & Justice

Church and Gun Violence          Biblical Justice


“A Different Graduation”

One of the highlights of college teaching was the commencement each spring.  Faculty joined university administrators to don academic regalia, exchanging joyful conversation at the end of another academic year.  Watching the graduates march in behind us was special as we reflected on their accomplishments the past four years. They had made sacrifices to achieve this milestone, many of them working extra jobs to pay for tuition, books, and fees.  Commencement is also a celebration for their parents, most of whom had offered emotional and financial support for their proud graduates. (The university president never failed to congratulate the parents along with the student graduates!)


          Two weeks ago I participated in a different graduation.  I drove past the university campus to another state institution.  The old “St. Cloud Reformatory” has a lot in common with the State University on the other side of the Mississippi River.  St. Cloud State celebrates its 150th anniversary this year (1869) and the prison opened just 20 years later (1889).  Both were built from the nearby solid rock quarries that give the “Granite City” its name.  They are among the largest employers in the city. 

          The similarities end as I enter the imposing Gothic structure.  No academic regalia.  In place of pleasant conversation among faculty I am greeted by a Correctional Officer behind bars, where I surrender my driver’s license and immediately remove my belt and car keys before walking through a metal detector.  No cell phones allowed in here. There’ll be no “selfies” to capture the moment in this graduation.

          Once through the metal detector and double entrance gates I’m escorted by the Prison Chaplain down long corridors, past cell blocks, more security gates and watchful  correctional officers monitoring movement of inmates and visitors.  Shortly after our arrival at the prison chapel our “graduates” begin arriving from their cell blocks.


          No academic caps and gowns, no graduation march to the classical “Pomp and Circumstance”—but the small group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry” program begin arriving.  Smiles on their faces and a bounce in their steps belie the reality of this secure, solemn prison environment.  Today they’ll be recognized for completing the ten-week “Change Plan” class.  For most this was not their first prison sentence.  They had tried and failed to stay straight.  They needed help, better self-awareness and the “tools” to make a satisfactory adjustment to the “free world” again.

          A different graduation, a different place, and a different diploma.  But it brings me as much joy as seeing college students graduate.  These “graduates” are convicted felons, most of them racial and ethnic minorities, from families and neighborhoods that faced difficult challenges. They take responsibility for their crimes (a course requirement !) and are determined to do better.  Most of them have never received a diploma.  This day they received a certificate and diploma signed by the chaplain and the three of us who led the group as Prison Fellowship Volunteers.  The smiles on their faces showed a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Just like a “real graduation!”

Tags     Prison Fellowship Academy          Changed Lives: Theirs & Mine                                            Granite City and Gray Walls