Seminary's First Graduating Class at San Quentin State Prison

God is behind the walls of the church at San Quentin State Prison, which is located 20 minutes from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s Northern California campus. At first glance the two institutions seem to have little in common. But both are places where theology is taught, God is sought, and students who are called to the ministry receive degrees.

Yes, theological degrees were conferred at the oldest California state prison on June 10, 2010. For the first time in the prison’s 150-year history, four inmates – Mark Baldwin of California, 50; Robert Butler of California, 51; David Cowan of Pennsylvania, 42; and Darrell Cortez Hartley of Missouri, 46 – received diplomas in Christian Ministries from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s Contextualized Leadership Development Program.

Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD) provides classes at a post-high school level in order to train competent Christian leaders. For those without a high school or college diploma, or for those where English is a second language, CLD offers an opportunity to become equipped and trained for effective Christian service. The program takes two to three years to complete and instruction includes eight classes that range from church planting and evangelism to ministry training. The 30-plus inmates in the program at San Quentin are taught by seminary graduate students and alumni on a volunteer basis during spring and fall semesters.

“The word ‘contextualized’ means the material is taught in the language and culture of a particular people group,” explains Dr. Chris Foreman, who was one of the first of San Quentin’s CLD instructors. “When we began to teach at San Quentin, we had to contextualize the curriculum for this culture.” Foreman is a Golden Gate graduate who pastors First Southern Baptist Church of San Lorenzo in Northern California.

The Seminary’s CLD program marks its 28th anniversary this year. The program currently has 62 Centers throughout the United States, and is presently taught in 17 states and 11 languages. San Quentin is the only prison location. CLD graduates have the option of participating in commencement ceremonies at one of the five Golden Gate Seminary campuses in the west. In the case of the San Quentin grads, the ceremony came to the prison.

“The format of this graduation program is identical to those at our other commencement ceremonies,” said Golden Gate Seminary President Jeff Iorg as diplomas were conferred on the four graduates. A respectful crowd of more than 150 fellow inmates and guests viewed the significant occasion, which took place in the prison’s Protestant Chapel.

“These graduates are receiving the same experience as our other graduates,” Iorg explained during the commencement ceremony. “The program is the same, the people on the podium are the same, the diploma is the same; and we expect the same kind of results from these graduates as from our other graduates.”
“Some may wonder why such a program would be offered in prison, where many of the graduates will never be paroled,” said Iorg. “Our mission is training leaders to expand God’s Kingdom. The church is in San Quentin and needs leaders here, too.”

Jerry Stubblefield, Director ot the North Bay School of Theology at San Quentin, agreed. “People on the outside need to see the work that God has done on the inside with these men.” There is a ministry going on in the cells, Stubblefield noted. “It might be the only time some of these men get to make a decision for Christ. And they’re not the same people once they ask Jesus into their lives. God has done something to them on the inside. You can see the redeeming value of God in their lives.”

“I was amazed at the life transformations,” agreed Donald Hart, a Seminary graduate who has taught several CLD classes. “Even without knowing them deeply, I could see transformation, could see what God had done in their lives. The work of God doesn’t stop at the prison door.”

Several of the instructors, who are all Golden Gate Seminary graduate students or alumni, were surprised by how motivated the inmates are. “They attend because they want to, they have a real desire to learn, and they want to make a difference,” noted Hart.

“I was struck by how much they accomplish with minimal resources,” said Ray Fox, another Seminary grad who is studying for a post-graduate degree. Fox pointed out how the San Quentin students are not allowed to use computers, and there are no PowerPoints, no CDs, and no theological library. “We use blackboards as a teaching tool,” Fox said. “I am humbled by these guys. They come in with their handwritten, crumpled assignments, and they spend 16 weeks proving you’re not wasting your time with them.”

“There are many obstacles to receiving an education while in prison,” said Stubblefield, who has had a ministry to the inmates since 1995. “And while it is available, it is sometimes inaccessible because of lock-downs, late and slow meal schedules, and inclement weather. It would be easy to use these as excuses, but these brothers were determined to keep going.”

At the prison, all the instructors are volunteers because there is no budget. Don Beall, the Seminary’s national CLD director, explained, “All the hardcover theology books are purchased with donated funds. The prisoners don’t own the books, but they check them out and are responsible for them. These books cost $49 each, and if they lose a book they have to pay for it.” Beall pointed out that their salary is 28 cents an hour.

“Even with this minimal income, the Garden Chapel congregation has sent $6,000 to six missions so far this year,” said Beall. He explained how inmate and CLD graduate David Cowan oversees the prison’s missions ministry through prayer vigils and fundraising, and interacts with the missionaries through handwritten letters.

The other CLD graduates also have ministries within the prison. Mark Baldwin teaches an apologetics class, and leads a daily Bible study. Darrell Hartley’s ministry is as an addiction/pastoral counselor, and he is a licensed minister. Robert Butler is an ordained minister. “Under the leadership of my pastor, I minister to the needs of this church. I preach, pray, welcome, teach and assist the pastor in whatever he needs,” explained Butler.

At the conclusion of the commencement address, Dr. Iorg recounted an earlier meeting with the CLD students. “A few months ago, I was asked to be a guest lecturer in a course. The subject was my book, Is God Calling Me? I was told to speak for a few minutes and then let the men ask questions about it. To my surprise, when it came time for questions, every man in the class pulled out his copy of the book – complete with post-it notes dangling from multiple pages – and started asking me questions. They weren’t general questions. They asked things like, “On page 68, you said…. How do you apply this…?” It was one of the most invigorating teaching experiences of my ministry.”

On June 10, the first commencement ceremonies were held inside San Quentin. Men graduated who have completed their entire program while incarcerated. Some won’t be released for years – perhaps decades. Iorg stated what many were thinking. “Thank God for these men who are learning to be ministry leaders – and missionaries – in the difficult setting of a state penitentiary!”