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Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom grew up poor, completed college and graduate school, got a great job at a Christian university in Chicago and a cabin in the Michigan woods. As many evangelical Christians would, she thanks Jesus for her good fortune. But when Michelle searches the Bible, she doesn’t go straight to the Jesus parts for inspiration. She says she finds it in “the stories of failure. Which are all over Scripture, right?”
Take King David’s failures, for example. Beyond famously slaying Goliath, David messed up a lot, committed adultery, ordered assassinations and ignored God. Michelle looks beyond his example to “the failure in the garden, or the failures of society, wherever you see those, to be able to read those stories and know that the whole story is one of healing, restoration, reconciliation, redemption, all of that, and when you put those two things together you have the safety to then to fail yourself and know you’re going to be picked up.”
Michelle is in her early fifties. She’s got unfussy, long brown hair, dresses a bit like she’s ready for a hike, and looks you in the eye when she talks. When she walks across the campus at North Park University, where she teaches theology and ethics, a lot of people say, “Hi”.
With biblical stories of failure on her mind, Michelle did something a few years ago that no one at her seminary, or in her state, had done. She took those stories straight to men in a place that symbolizes their failure and society’s: Stateville Correctional Center. Michelle started Illinois’ first master’s degree program inside a maximum security prison.
“Definitely when we first went in,” Michelle says, “a lot of them were like, ‘What is this white woman doing in here? What does she want?’ ”
She wants the men inside Stateville to get an education. She wants some of those men to get out. And she wants to abolish, or at least profoundly reform, an American prison system she sees as deeply unjust.
“The public wants higher sentences because they’re scared of violence and crime. But yet,” she adds, “it’s not based on real statistics and probability, so that’s part of our work, is changing that.”
Michelle believes a lot of that change involves showing up and listening.
Before she started going to the prison, Michelle taught a course on mass incarceration at North Park Seminary. One of her students there, a young Black man, really challenged her. He urged her to do more than talk, she recalls. “Basically he said, ‘Michelle, you teach all this great stuff, how are you really living this?’ “
In 2010, he inspired her to ask the school for a semester off, a sabbatical, and she made a plan.
“I started thinking, okay, who doesn’t have access to theological education?” Michelle says. “I thought: prisons. Prisons lock up disproportionately people of color, people who have been through trauma, people who come from low income, economically distressed neighborhoods, victims of domestic abuse and violence.”
She made the first of many drives west from her house in Chicago, across the Des Plaines River to a notorious maximum security lockup in the middle of 2,000 acres of corn fields and meadow, down a wide driveway lined with trees. At the end of that road, Stateville looks stuck in time: tall iron gates; a red brick guard house almost a century old, the words “Illinois State Penitentiary” carved in stone above the door. Beyond the gatehouse runs a 30-foot wall stained with decades of mud and rust. Beyond that: 2,000 men.
Michelle walked through metal detectors and checkpoints and gate after gate after gate. She wound up in a classroom with men serving life sentences. In a course called “Women in the Bible,” she saw them grapple with Scripture and with themselves. In those Bible stories about Sarah, Rachel, and Mary, they saw their own sisters and mothers, girlfriends and wives.
“I was so moved by some of their stories, and the ways they were owning how they had dehumanized women in their life and how they had seen that modeled in their homes and yet they weren’t able to break those cycles,” Michelle says.
Discussing the Bible behind bars felt powerful to her — and to her students.
Benny Rios says she’s one of the best teachers he’d ever had.
“There’s a sense of love,” he says during a phone call from Stateville. “There’s a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. Once you’re done with the program, it doesn’t just end: ‘Bye Bye, Have a nice life. We hope you do well.’ No, there’s a connection. When we took the second class, they started giving us credits and then from there, we asked for more. We wanted a degree.”
Benny is 43 years old. In his Latino neighborhood in Chicago, he grew up around gangs and joined one himself. In his early twenties, a jury convicted him of shooting a man to death. He’s been in prison for 19 years.
Benny’s got a wife who loves him and two step-daughters. He’s taken just about every class he can take behind bars: writing, urban studies, theology, and law. He saw that Michelle took his ambition seriously. She saw he wants to be more than a missionary or a model prisoner: he wants to go home. Michelle’s classes focused on restorative justice, peacemaking and prison reform, skills the men could use inside and, for those able to get there, outside. So far at Stateville, it’s reached more than 200 men. When we spoke, Benny was one of 80 on track to earn master’s degrees from North Park University.
Benny says, “They’re looking out for every aspect of our lives. Any type of ministerial work you want to do, all the way down to helping you manage your finances, and so it’s not just a spiritual thing but it’s holistic.”
The relationship between the prison and the university continues to grow. North Park covers tuition. In non-pandemic times, graduate students from the seminary drive to the prison and join the classes. Undergrads help the Stateville students publish a newsletter, and a teacher helped the men write a play based on their life stories. A Chicago theater plans to stage it when the pandemic eases.
Michelle grew up outside Minneapolis. Her divorced mom taught life skills and coached basketball in a juvenile detention center.
“We didn’t have a beautiful house or a lot of other things, but people liked to be at our house,” she says. “And I think a lot of that was because my mom loved kids and young people. And she was just welcoming. Even when she wasn’t there, you could feel it.” After school, Michelle often found a neighborhood kid at the kitchen table.
When she went off to college and graduate school, Michelle read widely and kept her mind open. She studied liberation theology, a field that blends Christian scripture, spiritual practice and social justice,and read works by people like James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez. Their books inform what she teaches her students inside Stateville.
“They see themselves in the sources that we’re reading,” Michelle says. “They find themselves in historical narratives, in biblical narratives. And they exercise their voice in ways that amplify the injustices in the world.”
Her student Benny Rios says her classes felt real.
“I came in and I saw she wasn’t here trying to impose any kind of white savior complex, you know. She was there for us,” Benny says. “She listened to us, she understood us, she came with the goal to not only teach us social justice and of course Christianity, but she also came with an open mind and heart to hear us out, which really got my respect.”
Still, Michelle wonders: “Why am I doing this? Who is it for? Who is it serving?”
America’s prisons and jails incarcerate about two million people, and a disproportionate share look like most of Michelle’s students: Black and Latino men. Black men get locked up in state and federal prisons at five times the rate of white men. COVID-19 hit them hard. By spring 2021, one of every three prisoners in Illinois had tested positive for the virus, three times the rate on the outside.
Stateville locked down in mid-March 2020 to try and stop the spread. Authorities banned volunteer and family visits, along with in-person education. COVID-19 nearly destroyed Michelle’s program. Before figuring out, fast, how to save it, she had to say goodbye. At least 88 people in Illinois prisons have died. Two of them were Michelle’s students.
She led their funerals over Zoom. She got prison officials’ permission to use that platform, invited their family members, North Park professors and classmates from the seminary.
Michelle began one ceremony: “Welcome to this service of witness to the resurrection and celebration of the life of Joseph Tremaine Wilson.”
Joseph spent half his life locked up on a murder conviction. He was 44 years old when he died. One by one, his teachers and friends sang, prayed, read his poetry. Many called him by his nickname, “Big Fella.”
His widow didn’t have an internet connection, so one of Michelle’s colleagues got her on FaceTime and held a cell phone up to the computer so she could watch. She heard them describe her husband as a gentle soul, a man of faith, a good friend. Many people on the outside saw only his murder conviction. Michelle’s other student who died was doing time for sexually assaulting and killing a child.
“We did receive some contact from the victim’s family, you know, ‘How could you take this student and celebrate [him]?’ It was really hard,” Michelle says. “And so to say to the persons who reached out to us, ‘We see you. We hear your voice. We claim him as our own and we also know this is one of the deepest forms of brokenness that anyone could weather.’ “
To deal with Stateville’s COVID restrictions, Michelle and her team at the seminary scrambled with prison staff to keep its courses going. Together, the institutions managed to transform an intensely personal master’s degree program based on face-to-face instruction and deep conversations into a kind of old-fashioned correspondence course.
“A sort of small army on the ground” makes that work, Michelle says.
It begins with her students inside Stateville. They do all their studying and writing in their cells. The guards don’t allow real pens or pencils, they fear those writing tools can become weapons,so the men write with tiny, rubbery pencils and pass their finished essays through the bars. Every Tuesday morning, the Stateville education director collects the homework and carries a cardboard banker’s box filled with paper out front to the parking lot, where Vickie Reddy, the North Park program’s assistant director, waits.
Vickie puts the box in her trunk and drives an hour back to the seminary. There, she scans the homework and emails it to professors and fellow students for feedback. Later, she prints and collates everything in packets for each student, to take back to the prison.
They use a lot of paper. “Yesterday it was like 3,000 pages,” Vickie says when we talk.
Michelle says the Stateville students work hard and get creative. “When the lockdown happened and they weren’t able to get easy access to writing advisors, we had these students who were in the same cell block house. They were on different galleys or floors, and one was a writing advisor, and the student who needed help literally tied his paper to a string and then to a water bottle and threw it out the galley down to the guy and said, ‘I want the guy in cell number, whatever, 640, to get this and read it and give me feedback and then I’ll pull it back up.’ “
Everybody calls Oscar Parham “Smiley.” It fits, he smiles a lot. When we’re on the phone and I call him Oscar, he corrects me. He enrolled in Michelle’s program early on. She got him writing poetry.
“She’d get us involved by having us get up in front of the class,” Oscar says. “I’ve always been scared to speak in front of people. She gave me a voice. She gave everybody a voice in the class.”
This training helped a lot when he went before the Prison Review Board to ask the governor for clemency.
“I was locked up for 30 years for a case I didn’t do,” Oscar says. It involved a double murder: two men shot during a drug deal. Prosecutors knew Oscar didn’t pull the trigger; he wasn’t even at the scene of the crime. Oscar got sent to prison under a guilt-by-association law meant to round up gang members. When he refused a plea deal, his sentence got even longer.
Michelle showed up for him.
“She was there at my clemency hearing,” Oscar says. “That was the thing that shocked my family. They thought that they were the only ones that were going to be there. Michelle led a charge where she brought a whole bunch of people from the school, which made a big difference, because it showed that I not only had support from my family, I had support from people outside my family.”
Out of 1,000 clemency petitions in the state each year, usually only two or three prisoners go free. In 2019, Oscar was one of them. The day he got the news, a group from North Park showed up to congratulate him in person, and they brought along Lauren Daigle, a Christian rock star who’s one of his favorite singers.
When Oscar got out, Michelle helped him find a job, got him a dorm room at North Park, helped him sign up for classes. Oscar’s married now. He owns a house, and mentors young men and boys. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in pastoral ministry. He knows his story gives hope to his classmates on the inside.
Hope is all some of them have. The laws aren’t really on their side. Illinois has one of the most punitive sentencing systems in the nation. In 1998, the state determined that anyone convicted of murder had to serve their full sentence.
No time off for good behavior, no consideration for their studies or for skills they’ve learned. No parole. This surprises a lot of people, even some politicians. Illinois is a blue state. Democrats have run politics there for decades. There’s no death penalty in Illinois, thanks in part to George Ryan, one of several governors in recent years who did prison time after he held office. He argued the capital punishment system was “haunted by the demon of error.” Still, the law doesn’t allow for these guys to get second chances.
Michelle wants politicians to see the real effect of that.
“We work with state legislators,” she says. “We’ve contacted the governor’s office. In fact, the lieutenant governor has met with a number of our students to get their feedback on sentencing laws.”
One of those was her student Benny. “I got locked up for first degree murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison under the Truth in Sentencing Act, which means I have to serve 100% of my time,” he says.
If things don’t change, Benny will be in prison until the year 2047. He’s one of Michelle’s best students.
The Evangelical Covenant Church invests in Michelle’s program with money, support staff, faculty and students’ time. “It’s gotten so much buy-in from the church,” Michelle says, “because this is what the church is supposed to be doing.”
She says it manifests the New Testament gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, where Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat….I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“These are the people we lock up….it’s the poor, the sick, the stranger, right?” Michelle says.
But in 2021, she adds, too many white Evangelicals of all denominations cling to false notions of identity, and miss Jesus’ message. Michelle’s seminary, North Park, is the flagship school of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Swedish immigrants founded this tiny Protestant denomination more than 100 years ago. And while there are still plenty of Swedes, like Michelle, people of color make up nearly one-third of the denomination. It’s one of the most diverse mainstream Protestant churches.
“As we’ve seen in the last few years,” she says, “the way especially white evangelicalism has associated with power, misused power, has been part of the insurrections that took place in early January, the Christian nationalism which is very deeply embedded in our evangelical world, that kind of racism and white supremacy is not new.”
As a kid, and later as a student at a small Christian college in Minnesota, Michelle knew a lot of white Evangelicals: people who looked like her, worshipped beside her in church. She knew some who looked down on people who weren’t like them. Within her small, relatively diverse denomination, racism persists.
“It was there when I was growing up. I saw it,” she recalls. “Didn’t recognize it for what it was. But I think the reason I was so late to that was because I did feel the kind of racial superiority that is very much a part of white evangelicalism.”
The word “evangelical” is pretty loaded these days. Lots of whites in that category supported former President Trump, so many people assume all evangelicals are politically right-wing. But the term is more about an attitude toward Jesus. Evangelicals see Jesus’ death and resurrection as a story with transformative power, one they feel called to share.
That student who inspired MIchelle to visit Stateville, he’s an ordained Evangelical Covenant minister now. His name is Dominique Gilliard. He trains other clergy in racial reconciliation, and he taught a course with Michelle at Stateville.
Michelle “never presents herself as a finished product,” Dominique says. “For me personally, it’s even more powerful than her ability to talk about the work she’s had to do. But her willingness to continue to say, there’s still work before me, as much as I’ve already done, as much as I’ve already learned, that this is a lifelong journey that I’m constantly going to have to be unlearning to be the best version of myself.”
Jamal Bakr is 37 years old. He’s been locked up since he was 18, serving a 60-year sentence for murder. When we speak on the phone, I want to get a taste of what it’s like to sit in class with him, something nobody’s been able to do for more than a year. He tells me about his favorite books on a reading list filled with intellectuals and activists: “Gustavo Gutierrez, anything that he writes. ‘Theology of Liberation.’ Any James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’, ‘Black Theology’. My favorite author’s James Baldwin, so anything that he writes. ‘The Fire Next Time’ is my favorite book.”
Jamal tells me about seeing a man get shot when he was a kid and talks about the times he got shot when he was a teen. He walks me through his recent essay on theology and suicide. A scholarly journal plans to publish it.
“My father’s a Muslim. I’m a Christian. My mother’s a devout Catholic,” he says. “I also try to engage the Torah and Judaism, on their theological understanding of people that commit suicide.”
In the photos of Jamal on the North Park seminary website, he has a chiseled face and an intense gaze. He looks that way in his mugshot too. On the streets, Jamal was known as “Lil’ Capone,” a nickname he took on when he realized his birthday is the anniversary of Al Capone’s death. Inside, he’s a different kind of leader. He’s on a new council to give prisoners a voice about prison conditions; he also mentors other men. He has a wife, a family. As our 20-minute call nears its end, he tells me that Michelle’s program is in high demand inside.
“It’s been my experience, most churches come to prison and they give you the same spiel. They’re here to save you, but there’s nothing beyond that,” Jamal says. He’s seen Michelle, her colleagues and the seminary students go beyond that. They’ve shown him that being Christian is about more than saving souls.
“Even if we were successful, and we were, like, saving every person in prison in Illinois, there’d be 40,000 Christians in prison. Then what? You know what I mean?” Jamal says. “Michelle and I have talked about this at length. That would be the equivalent of being on a sinking ship, and instead of passing out life vests, we’re passing out Bibles.”
Jamal turned 18 two days before the murder that sent him to prison. If the court had tried him as a juvenile, he would have been eligible for parole. He’s appealing his sentence. If Michelle can testify, she’ll say that Jamal is a powerful teacher and role model in prison; that he’s taught her about empathy and perseverance, that he’s earned a second chance.
“I’ve never been part of a community so saving, so invested,” Jamal says. “All I can say is, we save each other. That’s what a community’s supposed to do, right?”
Jamal hopes to get out of Stateville one day. If he does, Michelle and her community at North Park will be waiting. Until then, they’ll meet him where he is.
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Monique Parsons is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.