A few years ago, some members of Immanuel United Reformed Church (URC) in DeMotte, Ind., took part in a Reformed Bible conference hosted by Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Ill. While they were there, Juan*, an inmate and conference attendee, stood up and said, “We need a means to study systematic theology.” “We were blown away,” said Jon Hoek, a member of Immanuel URC. “It made us rethink what we were doing and started us thinking in a new direction.”

First seminary choir performance.
First seminary choir performance

That new direction was toward biblical instruction at the prison that would offer inmates an orderly, rational and coherent account of Christian faith and beliefs. Three years later, Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary is a reality.

For five hours a day, three days a week, 28 student inmates participate in classes taught by Nathan Brummel ’92, former pastor at Cornerstone Protestant Reformed Church in St. John, Ind. Class time is used for biblical exegesis, studying the scriptures and Reformed theology.

“They all know their Bible,” Brummel said of his students. “In some respects they put us to shame. What’s missing is an understanding of the doctrine of the Covenant, how it provides the architectonic structure for all of God’s revelation in Christ, how it ties the biblical message together. At Calvin, I learned to celebrate the life of the mind. I want Christian men in prison to love God with their mind.”

‘The Doctrine of God’

So in the opening week, students began learning about the attributes of God in their first class, “The Doctrine of God.” 

“I learned a new word this week: monotheism,” explained Troy, one of Brummel’s students.

“I thought I knew the Bible before, but I’ve already learned that I have to be careful what I say all the time because God is omnipresent,” Renaldo added.

“The first week was very enlightening,” said Juan. “God has many attributes and many names, but He does not change. He is the same ‘from everlasting to everlasting.’”

And this is just the beginning for the students, according to Brummel, who has plans to delve deeply into the application of doctrine. “My students might be tempted to separate their church life from the rest of their activities. I learned at Calvin that Christ is not only Lord of the institute church, where the preaching and sacraments occur, but He is the Lord of every sphere. I pray that my students would have an ‘intelligent piety,’ so that they would apply their Christian worldview to all of life.”

Lessons from Angola

While prison may seem an unlikely place for such an educational endeavor, it is not unprecedented. In fact, the notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana served as the model for the Illinois venture. There, warden Burl Cain approved the establishment of a satellite campus of New Orleans Baptist Seminary more than 15 years ago.

Formerly known as “the bloodiest prison in the South” due to the high number of inmate assaults, Angola has been transformed by the graduation of 192 inmate ministers, who serve both at Angola and in other prison populations around the state. At Angola violence has declined by 65 percent since the start of the seminary, and most of the previous prison gang leaders are now pastors.

Warden Anglin and Nathan Brummel.
Warden Anglin and Nathan Brummel

Board members of Divine Hope and Danville warden Keith Anglin visited Angola while considering the possibility of a seminary in the Illinois prison. “The department of corrections embraced this,” said Anglin. “We want to be the Angola of Illinois. Our goal would be to have this duplicated in all of the prisons. We’ve had vocational offerings and education opportunities before, but offering a divinity degree has never been done in the state of Illinois before.”

Terry Van Der Aa ’66, a Calvin board of trustees member, understands the positive benefits of such an undertaking. He first visited Angola in 2004 at the request of a friend who was involved in assisting recently released prisoners. His heart never left.

“A lot of people visit prisons because they find the idea intriguing, and then they never go back,” said Van Der Aa. “I kept coming back, and I became more attached to the whole process.”

So much so that Van Der Aa, a businessman in Hinsdale, Ill., is now chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

“States are crying out for help because of poor recidivism rates,” said Van Der Aa. “Governors might not be interested in Christianity, but they are interested in lowering their costs by lowering the number of prisoners or in getting their prisons under control. It’s an amazing opportunity for the church right now.”

In fact, recidivism rates drop from over 65 percent to single digits when education and moral rehabilitation has occurred, according to a national study by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Van Der Aa. “I’m delighted that they are starting this in Illinois.”

Longtime partnership

Danville is a medium/high-security prison with an adult male population of 1,833. It is about 150 miles south of Chicago, near the state line of Indiana. Prisoners’ sentences vary from several years to life.

Members from Faith URC in Beecher, Ill.; Oak Glen URC in Lansing, Ill.; Redeemer URC in Dyer, Ind.; and Immanuel had partnered with the prison for years, visiting on Sunday mornings and holding worship services. Immanuel had become further involved and had hoped to participate in Manny Mills’ Meet Me at the Gate program, which encourages churches to enfold inmates being released from prison. Immanuel members were disappointed when they were unable to form this partnership with the Danville correctional facility because of restrictions keeping parolees from crossing state lines.

“We already had this connection with Danville, and we really wanted to do something,” said Hoek.

The idea for the seminary took root and started to grow. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the prison on March 10, 2012, officially inaugurated the new seminary.

“We have a King—Jesus—who reaches down and uses weakness to do great things,” Hoek said at the ceremony. “We are a bunch of farmers and construction workers and weak laymen that God used to develop Divine Hope. Now God is using you to study to be theologians who go out and preach and proclaim the gospel in prison and to the world.”

A resounding “Amen” echoed across the room.

Guest speaker Nelson Kloosterman ’72, executive director of Worldview Resources International, then spoke on Reformed theological education and social justice, emphasizing that Reformed theological instruction is Bible-based, Christ-centered, a community endeavor and it is only “worth its salt” if it is life-changing.

The goal is that students “learn to apply God’s Word and principles to real, concrete, specific life,” he said.

Brummel then added his thoughts: “I was paging through the dictionary and with my yellow highlighter highlighted the word rehabilitation. It means, ‘to restore to a useful and constructive place in society through education.’

“From the perspective of the state, theological education results in moral rehabilitation, which is good,” he continued. “But we are planning on a far greater effect. What we need is a dramatic transformation. Reformed theological instruction weds together the life of the mind with godly character formation. To know God as He truly is must result in a transformed life of piety.”

The inmates closed the ceremony with a heartfelt singing of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

A great need

Adria Vander Griend Libolt ’69, who worked for more than 20 years as a deputy warden in the Michigan Department of Corrections and now works with ex-offenders, applauds the establishment of Divine Hope.

“It is not surprising that prisons are ripe for the gospel,” she said. “Prisoners are humbled in a way that is hard to imagine. They often lose everything—family, friends, possessions—and they are faced with who they are and their great need—which is, of course, what we all need to recognize. The spirit is alive in places like this because Jesus Christ comes to places and times like this.”

And Juan has come to know Him in this place. “Once in my life I just knew of God,” he said. “Then I came to know Christ; I have come to know Him on a deeper level. I look forward to learning much more in a systematic way that will truly reveal who God is.”

Renaldo, too, has felt God already at work. “I was a death row inmate. God saved me and redeemed me for this moment. First I got life,” he said, referring to his commuted sentence, “and now I’ve got hope.”

*To protect the privacy of inmates, their last names have been omitted.