New Reformed seminary behind bars: Opening doors within locked cells

The following article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 13 & 14 of the October 5, 2011 issues of Christian Renewal.

Doors have opened for a unique Reformed seminary within the walls of a prison in the Chicago area. A Board of Directors for Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary initially met on July 25, 2011, to determine direction for the Seminary, which will exist inside Danville Correctional Center in Danville, IL.

Don Hoekstra, Jon Hoek, and Dr. Nelson Kloosterman in front of Danville Correctional Center

“Nobody is doing this,” says Jon Hoek, President of the newly formed Board of Directors. “There is not a Reformed Seminary that we know of in the prison system. This is an opportunity not only for social justice, but also for reformation.”

The Board of Directors is seeking an ordained man to serve as program coordinator for Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary and hopes to begin classes in late January with a curriculum provided by Miami International Theological Seminary (MINTS).

Reformed churches in the Chicagoland area have been actively involved in prison ministry to the correctional facility for more than a decade. During that time a healthy group of Reformed Christians has formed within the prison. The idea for a seminary developed as these inmates began expressing their desire for deeper instruction in the Reformed faith.

Jon Hoek and others with prison ministry experience began discussing the idea with professors at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. In 2009 some of these representatives began visiting Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary to learn more about how a program of New Orleans Baptist Seminary functions there.

The men were impressed with the Louisiana program and had high hopes for instituting a similar program at Danville. Their hopes soared when Illinois correctional officials enthusiastically supported and promoted the plan at meetings held during the spring and summer of 2010.

But by fall of that same year, it had become apparent that Mid-America’s high academic standards and accreditation requirements were not feasible within a prison setting. The steering committee was discouraged. The men sought God’s guidance as they reassessed the concept of instituting a theological study program at Danville Correctional Center.

Mr. Hoek relates that a conference held with Neal Hegeman from MINTS on February 3, 2011, was a turning point.

“I felt like Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea when the waters parted,” he says. “We all came away from the meeting convinced that the MINTS curriculum was exactly what we needed.”

A comprehensive proposal, detailing the program’s implementation and outlining the academic curriculum, was subsequently presented to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

“On May 23 of this year we met with high level officials of the IDOC in Springfield, IL, to request permission to launch the Seminary,” Mr. Hoek says. “We received the Director of Corrections’ signature on our application by Thursday of that week.”

The Board of Directors that began meeting this summer consists of men with prison ministry experience from Faith URC in Beecher, IL, Oak Glen URC in Lansing, IL, Redeemer URC in Dyer, IL, and Immanuel URC in DeMotte, IN. Immanuel URC will serve as an interim facilitator of funds for Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary.

The Program Director being sought by the Board must have a BA degree and be a member in good standing of a NAPARC member church. He should have pastoral, chaplaincy, and biblical counseling experience. A M.Div degree or its equivalent from an accredited school of theology is preferred.

“This development in no small part has been encouraged by the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Wardens at Danville Prison,” says Mr. Hoek. “They have been actively encouraging us to deliver a program to equip men for sound doctrine in a place that has so much confusion about good theology.”

The curriculum will include programs that award a certificate, Associate of Arts degree, or Bachelor of Arts degree in theological studies. Courses are organized into five categories: Bible studies, theological studies, ministerial studies, church history and mission studies, and humanities.

“We’re pretty excited,” says Mr. Hoek. “We have developed a relationship of trust with a vibrant community hungry for the Word. This is all about teaching systematic theology; the believers there are eating it up.”

He envisions the Reformed instruction reaching far beyond Danville’s walls. 

“The IDOC hopes for virtual classrooms in every prison in the state of Illinois, linked to Danville,” he says. “This is an opportunity to spread Reformed theology and the doctrines of grace we hold so dear, to train leaders and pastors throughout the prison system of Illinois. You have to look at it from a long-term, evangelistic, strategic way of thinking. This is an opportunity to reach across cultural and ethnic barriers in a way that isn’t happening today. This is the application and fruit of our theology as Reformed Christians.”

The formation of Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary in Danville Correctional Center brings new meaning to Psalm 146:7, “The Lord sets the prisoners free.” May many prisoners bound by the chains of sin experience the true freedom found only in Christ!

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