The History of
New York Theological Seminary (NYTS)
and its Relationship with New York State Prisoners
Wilbert Webster White founded the Biblical Seminary in 1900. White believed the Bible to be the story of faith that shapes the identity of Christians and that the Bible should be the center of the seminary’s curriculum.
The seminary was financially supported by laity and alumni who specialized in serving immigrant poor and missionary communities. The seminary’s character was based on the biblical concept of Koinonia – a Greek word meaning community – that required the faithful to love their enemies and take care of those in need.
White wanted his students to be able to enter poor communities, understand the context and develop indigenous resources out of people’s life experiences.
Dr. George William Webber with NYTS Class
In 1965, the seminary changed its name to New York Theological Seminary and expanded its urban identity to include an institutional commitment to civil rights. George William Webber became the president in 1968, at which time the tuition dependent school faced serious financial problems that threatened to close it. Dr. Webber reoriented the school to its founding values; ecumenism, and a lay-focused, biblically-based curriculum. Dr. Webber sought a “pilgrim” faculty that was committed to learning from minority leaders and working the peripheries of society. The faculty had to learn how to cross the boundaries between the multiplicity of urban culture. He told them up front that they had to sacrifice income and independence as they materially “labored unrewarded.” Their reward would be the advancements and the healing they helped bring about in urban lives. The survival of the seminary would depend on the seminary’s commitment to attend to the pain and suffering of those people whom society had “forgotten.” Dr. Webber attracted people like himself, mission-oriented, compassionate, and often with elite educations, to provide high-level, practical, community-based theological education for urban leaders who could never afford to leave the city, much less the tuition at elite schools.
In 1981, Ed Muller, a Pastor and chaplain at Green Haven Prison and Karel Boersma, a pastor and volunteer at Green Haven, came to Dr. Webber with a request that the seminary create a curricular extension program for incarcerated Christians and Muslims of strong faith who had a desire to provide pastoral care inside of the prison. They claimed that pastoral care needs were so great that outside chaplains could not address them all. Dr. Webber agreed and collaborated with Rev. Dr. Earl Moore, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections, responsible for Ministerial and Family Services, and an NYTS alumnus, to create a Master in Professional Studies (MPS) degree for inmates.
The MPS was open to all inmates who held a bachelor’s degree and references from chaplains and other inmates attesting to their religious commitment. Holders of the MPS degree became chaplain’s assistants throughout the prison system, augmenting pastoral counseling, teaching and social services in the system.
Selecting the MPS Students
The current selection of students is based on a highly competitive application and reference process. Presently, there are hundreds of applications from inmates throughout the New York prison system. Each year, out of the hundreds of applications received, only 16 of the best are chosen to participate in the MPS program.
This decision is based on the applicant’s writing sample, his personal written testimony, recommendations from previous professors, chaplains, etc, and the input from the alumni on the Admissions Committee. Their knowledge of the applicant’s motivation is critical to the selection process in order to avoid downgrading the program with poorly functioning students. Too many admission “mistakes” and “drop-outs” would jeopardize the program’s viability inside and outside the prison.
The candidates who are finally selected for the program are transferred to Sing Sing prison where the courses are actually conducted.
The MPS Curriculum
The teaching faculty for the MPS is drawn from the NYTS faculty. The MPS program at Sing Sing is held to the same academic standards as those on campus. Critical to the program’s success is the fact that the Sing Sing classroom is a NYTS classroom. The faculty value their classrooms highly and are held equally accountable for student success.
To graduate from the MPS, along with fulfilling curriculum requirements, students must simultaneously complete a year of field work and a year of Pastoral Counseling. The student’s fieldwork is supervised in the prison setting. Such work includes facilitating for anti-violence, HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol treatment, religious and educational programs. Students must meet standard professional requirements in this work and also in counseling. In addition to course work, the students write an integration paper.
The NYTS “action-reflection” model requires a sociological methodology that is well integrated with its historic inductive methodology. This learning allows students to deconstruct the social systems that facilitate crime and incarceration. Understanding one’s life circumstances from the dual perspective of personal and social morality empowers the student with skills to transform himself, his community inside, and society. Ethics, Church History, Urban Ministry, Theology, and Pastoral Counseling course work engages and revolves around the sacred texts that shape the identity of one’s community, in this case, typically the Bible and the Koran. Students are taught a variety of hermeneutical tools to exegete and interpret scripture and daily life. Racism, sexism, and classism are oppressions that are routinely addressed. Regardless of the faith affiliations, Christians, Muslims, and Jews are not exempt from reflection upon each other’s sacred texts and religious experiences. Students learn how to communicate across differences and how to transform a moment of frustration and conflict into a moment of peaceful and fruitful learning.
Dr. Webber believes that they key to the classroom is the table the students sit around: “They sit and talk like they have never talked before.” In the NYTS classroom students are given a context and a safe place to address the unique and quality questions that most impact the world. The conversations demand one’s emotional and intellectual focus, and are often exhausting, but because they address such significant topics, the students rarely want to leave at the end of the day.
Dr. Webber credits significant social skills attainment to the interaction students have with each other, professors and volunteers. Of note, is the Rye Presbyterian and Ossining Churches’ multiple-year commitment to the program. Over time, volunteers acquire learning and the capacity to assist the inmates with self-assessment, relationship building and social skills.
After graduation, the Department of Corrections transfers MPS graduates from Sing Sing to other prisons where they are assigned to chaplain’s offices, infirmaries and a host of leadership positions in the many programs offered by the Department of Correctional Services. Their counseling skills are sought by pre-release programs, and drug and violence programs, and their backgrounds make them excellent teachers’ assistants. Other graduates request special programs, e.g., Bible Study or theological reflection on social issues such as family/love relationships. Alumni are then able to meet the ministerial needs and goals that precipitated the program.
The MPS Recidivism
Clearly, it is of great benefit to the prison system and the prison chaplains to have professionally trained inmates ministering and teaching their fellow prisoners in the prison system. But how do the MPS inmates fare once they are released from prison? Does the MPS help them to turn their lives around, live meaningful lives and contribute to society without engaging in further criminal activity? The answer to this question is an empathic “YES!”
MPS graduates have a 96% success rate upon release.
There are presently 139 MPS graduates who have been paroled. The following describes some of the positions they presently hold in the New York State area and abroad:
- Executive Directors of grass-root and mainstream organizations
- Production Manager of a community-based radio station
- Radio talk show host
- College Professors
- HIV/AIDS Counselors
- Post Release case workers
- Facility Chaplain for the Department of Correctional Services
- Ordained Ministers of a host of churches in New York City and abroad.
- High level official in the Salvation Army
This is just a portion of a long list of the many professional stations NYTS Sing Sing Graduates have acquired upon release.
The MPS has now been existence for more than 20 years, with slightly over 300 graduates, nearly 150 of whom are still incarcerated. A large portion of these graduates have been consistently denied parole, due to the present policies of the Governor. At the same time, unskilled, uneducated, socially inept inmates are being released in record numbers, solely because they have particular crimes.
The graduates of the MPS program epitomize the concept of rehabilitation and redemption and have so much to offer our society; they deserve “real” consideration at the parole board. Please, assist these men in securing “real” parole consideration, so that they can apply their skills and serve our communities as they were trained and are committed to do.
A large portion of this information was gathered from “Recidivism and the Masters in Professional Studies Program at Sing Sing Prison.” (An Exploratory Study By: Tom O’Connor M.S., Solicitor; Pat Ryan, M.S.W., MA; Crystal Parikh, M.A. (Center for Social Research) Victoria L. Erickson, Ph.D., Drew University (April 1, 1997)