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Theme 3: Community Formation

By now, a clear pattern has emerged: students develop academically, which contributes to their self-worth, and their sense of self-worth motivates them to serve others. Of course, this development is not simply the acquiring of academic skills, such as reading and writing, but includes course content as well. Calvin’s curriculum includes the liberal arts, Christian ministry, and community development. Throughout their coursework, students, as noted above, are encouraged to see themselves as moral and spiritual leaders. And yet, as also noted above, when students reflect on what exactly has given them the desire, confidence, and direction to serve others, they repeatedly identify specific academic skills as the key to their development. On the one hand, students identify basic classroom skills such as listening to others, respecting and understanding different points of view, and articulating one’s own views with confidence. On the other hand, students identify specific skills such as reading, writing, oral communication, and critical thought as key to equipping them as moral and spiritual leaders within their prison environment. This category saw the greatest increase in students identifying this attribute as a significant element of their education. With regard to the application essays, 9 out of the 57 students indicated that community formation was an important reason for pursuing a Calvin education. By the time of the transition essays, 41 out of 57 students stated that community formation was central to their identity as moral and spiritual leaders and a key motivation for their continued education.

One of our aims, then, is to help students develop a rich sense of what it means to belong to a moral and spiritual community. We stress that moral communities require moral persons, those who take seriously their own personal formation, which in turn allows them to engage others with a sense of “the good” in mind, for oneself and for others. Moral communities, in part, require service to others, or as we say, becoming a moral and spiritual servant leader.

With this context in mind, the following set of quotes captures the connection between personal and educational formation and their capacity to cultivate and strengthen positive communities within and outside of the prison.

A: “Since coming to prison, I have received Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior ... I’m looking for a worthy calling, to use my time wisely. ... I’m looking forward to learning everything I can from your program, and take it to hurting people wherever I go.”

T: “For the duration of my prison sentence, I will be able to have a positive effect on prison culture. Calvin has taught me that an educated person has the ability to interact with all people, regardless of class, race, and any other barrier that tries to divide us. Calvin has taught me over the last year I am capable of so much more than I even think is possible. Calvin is quickly developing the tools I need to better those around me.”

The first quote indicates that this student already wants to serve others, especially having become a Christian, but the second quote specifies how his service to others will look, what he will need to take into account, and how it will be necessary to address certain aspects of prison life in order to be of real service to others. As he puts it, the Calvin program is providing “tools” for him to serve others and indeed help foster a moral community.

Perhaps the following set of quotes captures best what we hope our students will learn in regard to nurturing a moral and spiritual community. This student began with a desire to please God and gain a solid education, and his experience in the CPI helped him understand how to be a better person and make a positive contribution to his community:

A: “My desires arc to please God. In my heart I truly believe this can best be accomplished by having a solid education based on Christianity. And I would fully embrace the challenge of stretching myself to taking your courses.”

T: “I have learned problem-solving strategics that have enabled me to see areas that led to being incarcerated, areas that led me to hurting people. My desire to learn isn’t just for me to get better or become a better person, but it is also so that I can make a positive impact in my community and possibly even the world. This education is teaching me that there are a great many more things that are important other than myself. And loving our neighbor is one of the biggest. I am currently learning how to learn, but by the end of the program it is my desire to help others learn how to learn.”

Of the three themes that emerged from the students’ essays over the course of nearly two years, the theme of community formation saw the greatest increase in frequency between the application and transition essays. Indeed, during this time we saw a remarkable rise in the number of students who were able to make a connection between their Christian liberal arts education and the need to contribute to community formation as moral and spiritual leaders.

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