Dressed in black, masked and wearing traditional mortars, 24 inmates at Nash Correctional Facility graduated with a bachelor’s degree on Wednesday.
They are the first class of Field Ministry Program graduates, trained to support and counsel other offenders.
“Now focus on your future, on your path to the future,” urged Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs, whose Game Plan for Life organization funded the program. “I am proud of you, proud to be part of your team. It took guts.
Prison Commissioner Todd Ishee challenged graduates to be “a beacon of hope for offenders in the prison system who need a mentor to guide them through incarceration.”
Professors from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary taught inside Nashville Jail, providing offenders the same educational experience offered to undergraduates on the Wake Forest campus. Unlike a typical graduating class, the 24 field ministers graduated with honors: cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude.
“This is the first time in my life that I see this, and I have chaired over 40 graduation ceremonies,” said Danny Akin, president of Southeastern.
Lucas Rash, a Summa graduate, sitting with his parents for lunch after graduation, said he was excited about “the potential to be a positive influence, a friend, a mentor, however you like. call it “.
Rash, 35, will serve more than 30 more years for a hit and run that killed two people.
“I would have considered myself a professed Christian all my adult life, but I only lived like this a few years before entering this program,” he said.
A friend from his former prison, Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution, “challenged me to take my relationship with God seriously,” he said.
He plans to do the same when he is deployed to Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton. His parents, who hiked Shelby 262 miles for graduation, are thrilled he’s only 40 miles away.
“I joke that I can walk to Foothills faster than I can drive here,” said her mom, Donna Rash.
In addition to Foothills, three other prisons will accommodate the first group of field ministers: the correctional institutions of Granville, Warren and Piedmont. Future degrees will allow the program to expand to other state prisons.
“I think there will be a line up to get these guys into the institutions,” said Nash Correctional Facility Warden Drew Stanley.
Modeled on a program in Louisiana, prison field ministers augment existing programs, clergy board and staff, offering a peer perspective.
Taleena Lee, deputy director of programs, said prison staff are committed to the program and the hard work that goes into making it work.
“It was new to all of us, with a lot of firsts and a lot of questions to ask,” said Lee, “but everyone remained open-minded and focused on the big picture.”
From programs to custodial staff, she added, everyone understood that ministers on the ground “would improve the culture and safety within the North Carolina prison system for our people and our staff.”
The field ministers’ trip took a little longer than expected – 4.5 years from first class to graduation march. The extra semester was due to a pandemic break.
The program itself has evolved rapidly since its inception just over five years ago, when prisons, Coach Gibbs’ organization and the College of Southeastern came together.
“This shows that a private and public partnership supporting educational opportunities is working in this state,” said Seth Bible, director of Southeastern prison programs.
Over 100 offenders applied for admission, of which 30 made initial screening and 24 completed the diploma program.
“An 80% graduation rate is remarkable,” said Bible. “God’s fingerprints are all over this program.”