NYTimes offers tales of two very different Christian colleges

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, has had a reputation as one of the toughest places for criminals to do time in this country. If you go in, and the crime is serious enough, you’re not likely to come out. For years, decades even, the prison was a hotbed of violence and strife.

While still not a “country club” institution, the temperature and mood at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has changed, and the introduction of classes from a Southern Baptist college are apparently part of the new equation. The New York Times is on the scene:

Like most of his fellow inmates, Daryl Walters, 45, can expect to spend the rest of his days in the infamous prison on a former slave plantation here. He was sentenced to life without parole for a murder more than 20 years ago in a state where a life sentence means just that.

Yet there he was on a recent evening, preaching the Gospel to 200 men in a spired church in the heart of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, talking salvation and joy to murderers and rapists and robbers who waved their arms to an inmate band’s Christian worship music.

“God is merciful,” intoned Mr. Walters, an assistant pastor at one of many churches scattered through this maximum-security prison, informally known as Angola. “God gives us so many benefits.”

Mr. Walters is a graduate of one of the most unusual prison programs in the country: a Southern Baptist Bible college inside this sprawling facility, offering bachelor’s degrees in a rigorous four-year course that includes study of Greek and Hebrew as well as techniques for “sidewalk ministry” that inmates can practice in their dorms and meal lines.

The story, by reporter Erik Eckholm, touches all the bases and quotes approvingly from the prison’s warden, and includes a left-handed compliment from an official of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter:

Mr. Cain has used religion and peer counseling — backed by sharp discipline for defiant behavior — to promote what he calls a “moral rehabilitation” of individuals and a sense of community among men who might easily be consumed by rage or despair.

“The greatest enemy here is lack of hope,” Mr. Cain said in an interview. …

Still, the seminary appears to be legal because it is paid for privately, is voluntary and admits non-Christians, said Marjorie R. Esman, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Louisiana.

“I think that what Burl Cain calls moral rehabilitation is, in his mind, religious doctrine, but a lot of good has come of it,” Ms. Esman said. “I think it’s unfortunate that the only college available is a Christian one, but the fact that a college is there at all is important.”

There is one source of expertise missing from the piece, and that’s anyone from Prison Fellowship, the organization founded by the late Chuck Colson and perhaps the largest evangelical Christian organization specializing in prison ministry. Surely someone could be found there to offer an informed comment, but the group is oddly absent. Instead, the Times team turns to two academics for the pro-and-con (no pun intended):

Whether religion, per se, helps create peaceful prisons and reduce recidivism is a matter of scholarly dispute. Byron R. Johnson, a criminologist at Baylor University and the author of “More God, Less Crime,” argues that studies have shown the benefits of faith in rehabilitating criminals. He is now leading a study of the impact of the Baptist seminaries inside Angola and the Darrington prison in Texas.

But Winnifred F. Sullivan, a professor of religious studies and law at Indiana University, said, “There is no firm evidence that it is the faith component that makes these programs work.”

Overall, however, the story is solid and the emphasis on the positive aspects of the program is a welcome one. Readers with an interest in the subject will want to catch the multimedia elements of the piece, which includes nearly two minutes of audio from inmate/minister Daryl Walters. Hearing his testimony might put a lump in your throat.

On the other hand, Timesman Joseph Berger, who “served as chief religion correspondent” for the paper “from 1985 to 1987,” comes up a tad short, I believe, with a discussion of a new Christian college campus in Dutchess County, New York:

For 20 years, the 80 brick buildings of what was once the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center have lain fallow, their weathered faces hidden by untamed vines, their windows buckling, their emerald lawns turning to weeds.

Local residents have long been dismayed at the waste of such a handsome rustic property set in a green valley between two ridges.

Then in the summer, the lawns were mowed, the ivy and brush stripped away, and bulldozers cleared land for a soccer field. A sign appeared: Olivet Center. Townspeople learned that the mysterious new owner of most of the 900-acre property was Olivet University, a small evangelical Christian college of about 250 undergraduates based in San Francisco.

Olivet wanted to open a campus 65 miles north of New York City, not exactly the evangelical heartland, but perhaps a new frontier for attracting believers.

Dutchess County may not be the “Bible Belt,” but has there not been some growth in evangelical churches there in the past 20 years? I’m fairly sure there has been, and it might have helped to put a little more effort into finding that out, such as locating and talking with some local pastors, perhaps.

The Olivet University in this story is connected with controversy, however, and the Times team is quick to point that out:

But even supporters were surprised by what they discovered about the college after it bought the property.

A publication reported that the university’s founder, a Korean pastor named David Jang, was linked to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, whom critics labeled the mastermind of a cult; that some of the Dr. Jang’s closest followers seemed to believe that Dr. Jang was a messiah-like figure; and that he did not directly contradict that belief.

The claims were contained in a lengthy article last year in Christianity Today, a leading evangelical publication.

In 1989, the article said, Dr. Jang had been an assistant professor of theology at a seminary of the Unification Church founded by Mr. Moon, who died last year.

The article also claimed that Dr. Jang had given his followers the impression that he was “the Second Coming Christ,” not Christ himself but a messianic figure who would complete Jesus’ mission.

“I thought I’d heard they’re connected with the Moonies,” Mr. O’Neill [a 55-year-old plumber] said. But, he added: “As long as they clean up the site, I’m all right with it. I get along with people.”

Olivet officials deny any connection with the Unification Church.

Olivet leaders said that the article had misrepresented Dr. Jang and the college, and that Christianity Today was envious of the success of a rival Web site, the Christian Post, which was started by alumni of Olivet. Olivet’s president, Tracy Davis, denied that Mr. Jang had ever told anyone he was a messianic figure.

Jang isn’t making himself available to the paper for an interview, and Berger reports “Christianity Today says it stands by its story.” It might have been helpful to know who at CT said that, if only to get all sides on the record. (And, for what it’s worth, should “the late” precede Moon’s name, given that he passed away 13 months ago?)

The article also hints at possible questions concerning the denomination with which Olivet University is linked:

Although the school says it is part of the Presbyterian tradition, it is not affiliated with the mainstream denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., which has 1.8 million members and represents over 10,000 congregations.

Instead, Olivet is affiliated with the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches of America, a smaller, more conservative group that broke off from the mainstream Presbyterians in the mid-1980s because of differences over issues like women’s ordination. Olivet leaders said the denomination had 70 congregations, though some have only a small number of members.

Olivet University also has no connection to Olivet College in Michigan.

There’s no quote from anyone at the EAPCA, so we don’t know what the denomination is saying, unless the Times is asserting that Olivet University is speaking for that group.

At this point, much about the Dutchess County campus is unknown, since the New York State Education Department hasn’t authorized the school to operate programs there as yet; the Times reports Olivet “[a]dministrators are putting together an application.”

So we have a school where there’s supposedly some controversy about its founder, connected somehow with a denomination that isn’t quoted, and that isn’t open for business yet. Am I the only one to see some holes here?

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Brett

    No, you aren’t the only one to see holes. Another one would be to check into this claim of success for the “Christian Post,” a site I’d never heard of before this article, as a reason for CT’s supposed jealousy. Checking with either the Sun Hwa Theological Seminary or the Korean Methodist Church about the seminary’s status when the university founder is supposed to have taught there would also seem in order.

    And that lede is Bulwer-Lytton worthy.

  • Mark Byron

    I’m not sure if the reporter is confusing the EAPCA with the Presbyterian Church in America, the main conservative Presbyterian grouping who did splinter off when more moderate Southern churches merged with northern center-left Presbyterians to form the PC-USA. The EAPCA seems to have started in 2004 rather than the early 1982 that saw the coalescing of the PCA.

  • n_coast

    Kind of off the subject, but could the Times find a Louisiana plantation (pre civil war) that did not have slaves doing the field work?

  • Ted Olsen

    “It might have been helpful to know who at CT said that, if only to get all sides on the record.” That would be me, and I’m probably to blame for the vagueness in the sentence. We were closing the November issue of CT when Berger called and I couldn’t take his call. When I called him back, he was pushing against his deadline. I reckon he had that in as a placeholder, assuming we’d stand by our reporting (which we very much do) and didn’t see the need to change it (I wouldn’t have, either).

  • Reformed Catholic

    “Although the school says it is part of the Presbyterian tradition, it is
    not affiliated with the mainstream denomination, the Presbyterian
    Church U.S.A., which has 1.8 million members and represents over 10,000
    congregations.”

    FWIW … Presbyterian is the form of the church polity. The Presbyterian Church (USA) does not hold a monopoly on that. Nor does it have a monopoly on being Reformed, which is the branch of Christianity that comes out of John Calvin’s theology.

    Frankly, to many Presbyterian denominations, the PC(USA) is an embarrassment.


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