By Laura Camby McCaskill and Jessica Brodie
BISHOPVILLE—One United Methodist pastor is on a mission to extend theological education to prisoners at Lee Correctional Institution, one of South Carolina’s maximum-security prisons.
The Rev. Tim Whited, pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church, Oswego, spent the summer teaching weekly Bible classes to men incarcerated at Lee using course materials provided by Pilgrim Theological Seminary. Myrtle Beach Wesleyan College and Pilgrim Seminary have a mission to help people seeking higher education in Christian perspective, particularly helping those incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities.
Nearly two dozen men in Whited’s first class earned academic credit toward their Associate in Ministry degree, which parallels the courses in the United Methodist Course of Study. The Introduction to the Gospels class covered historical background, themes, author information, the basics of interpretation and more. Ongoing classes are held in the Lee Correctional chapel for two and a half hours each week led by Whited and under the supervision and coordination of Lee Correctional Senior Chaplain the Rev. Edward McKnight and Associate Chaplain the Rev. Norton Newsome.
Whited said the classes have gone smoothly, and there are already three prisoners who have told him they are interested in going into the ministry.
“Their responses have been appropriate, good, not frivolous,” Whited said. “Their questions have been of the same character. Their questions are not just goofy questions, for lack of a better word; they ask questions that have substance to them. I’ve been very pleased with them.”
McKnight, who also serves as pastor of Faith UMC, Cades, said Whited has been an “awesome example” to the men incarcerated at Lee.
“He’s doing a great job. The theology classes are really encouraging the guys to be great students of the word of God,” McKnight said. “The purpose behind the classes is to prepare these guys to be Godly men, but we’re looking at preparing them also for just being good leaders. If they are released, they will be somewhat prepared to be lay leaders in United Methodist churches. So it has just been a great asset to have him and also to just give the guys an opportunity to grow spiritually.”
Whited’s followup class, “Principles of Biblical Interpretation,” started Sept. 20. The video resources for these courses were developed by Dr. David Watson, academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary.
“All the men that were in that (first) class wanted to take the second class—that’s the kind of impact it had,” McKnight said.
Whited has long enjoyed teaching theology classes, serving previously as an adjunct at Southern Wesleyan University. Now, he is particularly excited about teaching these classes in prison.
“It’s an opportunity to potentially—and I really believe this!—make a difference in the prison,” Whited said. “Our guys are basically performing as lay ministers in the prison. They’re being a good witness and good help and a good influence, and I feel like what we can do through them is sometimes much more than I can do out here.”
Whited is also certain the theology education classes will help the men when they get released from prison.
“At some point some of these men will get out, and what we’re trying to do is provide them now with a church they can call their church,” he said. “For instance, Bethel UMC, where I am the pastor, is open to them for membership. We want them to be able to walk out of there and find grace and the ability (as much as their background will allow) to have a part of the ministry of the Gospel.”
After all, Whited said, Paul was a murderer, and stories abound in Scripture of people who had horrible backgrounds yet were redeemed. “We are trying the best we can to offer grace, and I hope people will respond to that in a positive way,” Whited said. “A lot of these guys will not get out, and we want them to have the realization that they have a church that will pray for them, too.”
The Rev. Keith Smith, dean of the chapel at Pilgrim Theological Seminary and a former prisoner himself, said while the school reaches out to anyone seeking minimal cost, easily accessible higher education in Christian perspective, its leadership has a particular call to helping those incarcerated, citing Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.”
Smith said prison ministry is extremely important. “On the outside we tend to think of prisons as places where criminals are sent, and what prisons really are, are communities. We talk about persons in prisons as though they are objects and identify them by their crime: murderer, thief, drug dealer, etc. But those in prison are not objects. They are people—people whom God loves and Christ has died for—just like you and me. Those in prison are somebody’s son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew.”
Smith said what’s great is that inside every prison community, the church is there, comprised of the believers in that place.
“While it’s wonderful that churches on the outside go to prisons once a week to do a Bible study or other kinds of things, we can’t fail to realize that inside those prison communities, the church is already there,” Smith said. “It might not be organized like the ones on the outside, but the believers in that place are the church inside that community. Prison ministry should never be seen as ministry to prisoners but always with persons who are incarcerated.
“Like a church anywhere in the community, it has the responsibilities of proclamation, service, teaching and all the things that the church does. It’s not excused from that because of its location or the difficulty of going about that work. It’s the work of the Christian faith community within the inside of the larger community to win and transform their community for Christ.”
Smith called the Christians in prison the “church-behind-the-wall.” They know the language and culture of the prison community and are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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