Oct. 25 was a day of celebration at E.C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. Sixteen students donned caps and gowns for the prison’s first graduation ceremony of Prison Fellowship’s seminary program.
Family and friends waited with great anticipation in the prison’s lobby; each student was allowed to invite four people from their visitor list to join in the celebration. This was the first time family and friends could go beyond the designated visitor room.
Many helping hands transformed the gym. A welcome sign hung in the doorway to greet guests. Decorations adorned the walls, and the bleachers became an art gallery for prisoners’ paintings and drawings. A generous Prison Fellowship ministry partner provided flowers, adding warmth to the gym.
Before the ceremony, the graduating students laughed together, prayed with their mentors, and opened their congratulatory gifts. As they readied themselves with caps, gowns, and red stoles, they peeked through the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of their family and friends walking across the yard. Some family members traveled from as far as Washington, Oregon, and New York.
The ceremony began with an opening prayer, and the prison’s band led the group in worship. A graduate named Fredrick received special recognition for the highest grade point average in his class and the servant heart he displayed as he mentored struggling students and began a community service project with fellow graduate Raymond. Prison Fellowship and prison staff spoke about the dedication these 16 men had showed over the past three-and-a-half years as they worked through this seminary program to become Christian leaders in their prison and in the communities where some will be released.
Finally the moment arrived; the students received their certificates in Christian leadership studies. There were shouts of joy from students and guests. The chaplain commissioned the graduates and closed with prayer.
Family and friends met the graduates with hugs and tears of joy. Everyone joined together for a special meal ending in a celebration cake, and the graduates took time to recognize the prison and program staff and volunteers for bringing the opportunity to them.
When it came time to wrap up the celebration, it was difficult. But families left with great pride for their graduate’s accomplishment, and it continued to be a day of jubilation for the graduates because they had found their purpose. They have hope in their hearts and truth to share with others.
Prisoners who volunteered to help with the ceremony and celebration were also impacted by what they witnessed. One prisoner shared, “Thank you for allowing us to be a part of this. I didn’t feel like I was in prison today.” Another stated, “Thank you for what has taken place. These men have changed since starting [the program]. They have made a difference on this compound. There are less fights; it’s a better environment.”
These men are already making a difference. They are leading Bible studies in their units and developing community service projects both behind the walls and reaching out to the community. The church behind the walls has gained a new vibrancy, and we are all looking forward to the completion of the brand new chapel being built on the grounds of E.C. Brooks.
The class of 2014 is so excited about what God has planned for them. The graduates know they will continue to be challenged every day, but they have gained self-confidence and discovered their God-given passion and purpose through their in-depth study of God’s Word.
Congratulations to the seminary-program graduating class of 2014! We look forward to starting another study at E.C. Brooks in 2015.
Karen Hansen is a seminary-program specialist for Prison Fellowship.