May 14, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

Shawn Davis '24, a graduate of Calvin University, delivers remarks behind a podium.
Shawn Davis provided student remarks during the 2024 Commencement ceremony held inside Handlon Correctional Facility.

On Friday, May 10, 2024, 34 men stood in three rows inside Handlon Correctional Facility awaiting their charge.

The last time these men heard a charge read, it was related to the worst mistake they had ever made—one that for many cost lives and forever sentenced theirs. It was a day where all hope seemed lost.

But on this beautiful spring day in May, these men stood up tall to receive a new charge—one that didn’t involve punishment, but rather bestowed tremendous responsibility.

“You know that our mission is to equip students to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world,” said Greg Elzinga, interim president of Calvin University. “In the name of this mission, I now charge you to go into your community to participate in God’s great project of renewal.”

Graduates standing and applauding.
Graduates celebrate during the 2024 Commencement ceremony inside Handlon Correctional Facility.

These were among the concluding remarks at the 2024 Commencement ceremony, where inmates from Handlon Correctional Facility were presented with diplomas for earning associate and bachelor’s degrees from Calvin University through the Calvin Prison Initiative program, a partnership between the Michigan Department of Corrections, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Calvin University.

Blazing a trail

“I still remember December 17, 2013, when I received an email of appreciation from the Michigan Department of Corrections and it said, ‘we loved what we were able to see at Angola Prison in Louisiana but could you and your staff look at what could be happening here in the state of Michigan.’ And that took us on a journey,” said Jul Medenblik, president of Calvin Theological Seminary.

Now a decade later, that journey has seen five cohorts of students graduate with degrees in faith and community leadership from Calvin University.

“This education that you have earned is a key to unlocking a future of unlimited potential,” said Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. “The benefits of your education and of your transformation are truly limitless.”

The key reason comes back to the formational aspect of the Christ-centered education. While the degree itself is seen as an important milestone, considering that many of the men are the first in their family to earn a college degree, the journey they’ve been on reveals a much deeper purpose for the educational pursuit.

A graduate hugs a family member after receiving his degree.
Graduates celebrate with family and friends following the 2024 Commencement ceremony.

Instilling a new identity

“The Calvin community reminded us that we are God’s image bearers despite our past failures,” said Shawn Davis, who was providing the graduate remarks at Friday’s ceremony. “Although we wear prison blues, we are more than prisoners. We are humans made in the image of God. We are husbands, fathers, sons, and neighbors. We are mentors to those who have challenges with substance abuse and mental illness. We are tutors to students with special needs and food providers for women’s shelters and the elderly. We are leaders in restorative justice and shoulders to cry on for those who are grieving. We are men who use education to turn visions into reality.”

In her Commencement Address, Sarah Visser, executive vice president for Calvin University, reinforced that the Calvin Prison Initiative is about changing hearts and minds.

“While we celebrate your accomplishments today, please hear this and let it really sink in. This degree you are getting today isn’t what matters most. What matters most is what happened along the way. The ways that the God of the universe pursued you and invited you to go on ahead,” said Visser.

A Calvin administrator dressed in red regalia stands behind a podium.
Sarah Visser delivers the Commencement Address during the 2024 Commencement ceremony.

Visser reflected on a story in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus, in the midst of a raging storm, goes out first onto the water and calls Peter to walk toward him. She referenced author Paul David Tripp’s commentary on the passage as she drew parallels to the graduates’ journey over the past five years—a journey filled with both fear and hope.

“He [Tripp] says the minute he [Jesus] begins to take the walk; you know what he has in mind. If all Jesus wants to do is relieve the difficulty, he wouldn’t need to take the walk, all he would need to do is say a prayer from the shore and the wind would cease. He takes the walk because he’s not after the difficulty, he’s after the men in the middle of the difficulty. He’s working to change everything they think about themselves and their lives.”

And perhaps that’s the greatest outcome of the education the men have received.

Aiming higher

“My mother would always tell me ‘You are more than your environment.’ The fact that we are sitting in a prison celebrating a group of men receiving college degrees supports my mother’s belief,” said Davis. “More than your environment means we don’t have to conform to the abject expectations set by the world around us, because the negative things we see do not reflect whom God created us to be.”

For the past decade, the Calvin Prison Initiative has been helping inmates rise above the limited expectations put on them by their environment. The program has pushed them toward a higher calling—one that is changing individual hearts and minds and communities, both inside and outside of prison walls.

A group of CPI graduates and students sing at the 2024 Commencement ceremony.
The Handlon Tabernacle Choir performs during the Commencement ceremony.

“The Calvin Prison Initiative has the vision of transforming the prison community and making it safer and you men strive daily to help realize that vision,” said Davis to his fellow graduates. “However, we are much more than men who transform the community inside of prison. We are men who contribute to making the state of Michigan a better place, because every time you see a successful returning citizen, it’s likely they sat under the mentorship of men like us. The State of Michigan is a safer place because men like us choose to be more than our environment.”

Just the beginning

And while there are now dozens of successful outcome stories from the Calvin Prison Initiative program—it’s only just beginning.

“All of us working together, we are changing the world one day, one diploma, and one life at a time,” said Washington in her remarks to the graduates. “And you are part of it, and you are a partner in it. So, keep up the good work. Keep moving forward. Go out there and change the world.”

“Our diploma is more than a piece of paper to hang on the wall or a document to show the parole board. Our diploma is instead a reminder that although our college careers might be over, we have a mandate and an obligation to go forth each day being more for our family and our community,” said Davis. “The Calvin community reminded us that we are God’s image bearers despite our past failures.”

Then, Davis recited the last sentence of his prepared remarks:

“So, as we continue on our life journey, let us forever be more than our environment as we live out Calvin’s mission,” said Davis, and then the room filled with graduates and current students in the program joined him to recite the mission statement, “by thinking deeply, acting justly, and living wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.”

In that moment shouts of joy filled the room, and in the years ahead renewal seems destined to spread throughout prisons across the state.

Recent stories