‘God’s Fingerprints Are All Over This Program’

Prisons field ministry graduates line up to accept degrees at Nash Correctional Institution 12-15-2021.
Thursday, December 16, 2021 - 3:58pm

Prisons’ first field ministers graduate from college, prepare to positively influence fellow offenders.

NASHVILLE — Black-robed, masked and wearing traditional mortarboards, 24 offenders at Nash Correctional Institution collected a bachelor’s degree on Wednesday. They are the first class of graduates from the Field Ministry Program, trained to support and counsel fellow offenders.

 “Now focus on your future, on your journey going forward,” urged Super Bowl-winning Coach Joe Gibbs, whose Game Plan for Life organization provided funding for the program. “I’m proud of you, proud to be on your team. This took guts.”

Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee challenged graduates to be “a beacon of hope for offenders across the prison system who are in need of a mentor to guide them through incarceration.”

Faculty from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary taught inside the Nashville prison, providing offenders the same educational experience offered to undergraduates on the Wake Forest campus. Unlike a typical graduating class, all 24 field ministers graduated with honors: cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude.

“This is the first in my life I’ve seen this, and I’ve presided over 40 graduations,“ said Danny Akin, Southeastern’s president.

Summa graduate Lucas Rash, seated with his parents for post-graduation lunch, said he is excited about “the potential to be a positive influence, a friend, a mentor, whatever you want to call it.”

Rash, 35, will serve another 30-plus years for a hit-and-run that killed two people. “I would have considered myself a professed Christian all my adult life, but I didn’t live like it until a few years before entering this program,” he said.

 A buddy in his former prison home, Avery -Mitchell Correctional Institution, “challenged me to get serious about my relationship with God,” he said.

He anticipates doing the same when deployed to Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton. His parents, who drove 262 miles from Shelby for the graduation, are overjoyed he’ll be only 40 miles away. “I joke that I can walk to Foothills faster than I can drive here,” said his mother, Donna Rash.

Besides Foothills, three other prisons will host the first group of field ministers: Granville, Warren and Piedmont correctional institutions. Future graduations will allow the program to expand into other state prisons.

“I think there’ll be a line to get these guys into the facilities,” said Nash CI Warden Drew Stanley.

Modeled after a program in Louisiana, the prisons field ministers augment existing programs, counseling and clergy staff, offering a peer’s perspective.

Taleena Lee, associate warden of programs, said the prison’s staff bought into the program and the hard work necessary to run it. “This was new for all of us, with a lot of firsts and a lot of questions to be asked,” Lee said, “but everyone remained open-minded and focused on the big picture.”

From programs to custody personnel, she added, everyone understood that the field ministers would “enhance the culture and safety within the North Carolina prison system for our population and our staff.”

The field ministers’ journey took a bit longer than anticipated — 4 ½ years from first class to degree walk. The extra semester was due to a pandemic pause.

The program itself moved quickly from inception just over five years ago, when Prisons, Coach Gibbs’s organization and the College at Southeastern came together.

“This shows that a private and public partnership supporting educational opportunities works in this state,” said Seth Bible, Southeastern’s prison programs director.

More than 100 offenders applied for admission, with 30 making the initial cut and 24 completing the degree program.

“An 80 percent graduation rate is remarkable,” Bible said. “God’s fingerprints are all over this program.”

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Brad Deen