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:

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