NORCO, Calif. — Robert Ross' mother died while he was in prison for robbing a bank and he hasn't seen his 12-year-old son since the boy was in diapers.
For all that he has lost, however, Ross says he found something far greater behind bars thanks to a college-level seminary course that trains inmates to plant churches and evangelize in poor communities upon their release.
"When I tell people that I'm grateful for the 15 years 4 months that I was sentenced to, people look at me like I'm crazy or maybe on some kind of medication, and they ask 'Why?' and I tell 'em, 'Well, it took that for me to find out who Jesus is and really fall in love with him and let him do his work in me,'" he said. "Had I not been arrested, I'm sure I would be dead."
Ross, 32, works fulltime as a clerk at the chapel at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, about an hour southeast of Los Angeles, where inmates began enrolling in The Urban Ministry Institute as an experiment four years ago. He plays keyboard and guitar during services and is considered a leader in the seminary training program that is being expanded to 18 California prisons and nearly 900 inmates, including women.
World Impact Inc. developed the seminary curriculum to target poor communities and partnered with the nonprofit group Prison Fellowship in 2008 to try teaching the rigorous, three-and-half year course behind prison walls. The partnership between the two evangelist organizations graduated 10 men last year and expects to graduate 14 more next year.
Prisons in Michigan, Florida and Colorado have also started classes.
The institute had spread to five other California prisons and about 220 inmates when wealthy Malibu real estate entrepreneur Wayne Hughes Jr. gave $2 million to the program last year.
Hughes, himself a devout Christian, decided to fund the institute after visiting Angola prison in Louisiana, where a similar seminary program for inmates has reduced violence dramatically, he said.
"I really think there's a tipping point. If you can get 3 to 4 percent of the general population engaged, I think you'll really change the culture within the prison — and when they get out, they'll really change the culture from whence they came," he said.
Prison officials say it's too early to tell if the institute reduces recidivism but they are supporting the roll-out into more than half the state's 33 adult institutions based on anecdotal evidence that it's making a difference, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It takes three years to determine any program's recidivism success rate.
"Any program that offers inmates an opportunity to gain some introspection and self-study, to change their attitude toward life, is a huge step toward making their lives constructive when they leave prison," Sessa said.
Inmates who want to participate must get approval from the prison's chaplain after an interview and the coursework is tough, said Donald Warrick, the Protestant chaplain at the Norco lockup.
Students work their way through 16 study units and have an additional 40 to 50 hours of homework for each one. The homework is graded and students attend a weekly video lesson, followed by a discussion led by a volunteer from the outside.
Graduates attend a cap-and-gown ceremony and receive a certificate in Christian Leadership Studies that they can use to pursue graduate-level theology degrees, get work in a church or even start their own ministry on the outside.
For many, the graduation represents the first time they have completed any kind of academic challenge, said Owen Daniels, a former inmate who teaches at Norco.
"You're talking about men with bad backgrounds, men who have never completed anything, never had a job," he said. "What happens is the men started helping each other and they went from C's to B's to A's — and when they started getting A's, they started doing outstanding. It blew our minds."
On a recent evening, about 50 men settled into the pews in the sweltering chapel at Norco to watch and discuss the week's video lesson. Inmates used highlighters tucked in the pockets of their prison blues to follow along in thick workbooks and others clutched Bibles bristling with Post-It notes as Daniels dissected passages from the Old Testament.
Hands shot into the air when he asked who knew Zechariah 4:6 by heart.
"It's very easy, OK? Who knows it by heart? I know somebody's got to know it by heart," said Daniels. "'Not by my might, nor my power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.'"
Former inmate Paul Deaton was a student in the first pilot class. When he started, he could read at a sixth-grade level and was overwhelmed by writing seven-page essays, reading college-level books and memorizing Scripture. When he was paroled last summer, he said an exit exam found he could read at the college level.
Deaton, who served seven years behind bars, is now pursuing a bachelor's in theology at a Bible college in Fresno and plans to get a master's degree so he can teach at the college level and perhaps lead his own church. He is also helping train groups of volunteers to teach in prisons statewide.
His college courses this semester include philosophy, critical thinking, sociology, world culture, Old Testament theology, New Testament survey and an English research and writing class — all topics that the prison training touched on.
"If you make yourself available, the Lord will use you," Deaton said in a recent phone interview from his college dorm room. "The Holy Spirit is directing the show and he will move us to go wherever he needs help."
Whether the program's graduates will have success starting new churches remains to be seen.
Planting churches is extraordinarily hard work, even for those who don't have a prison record, and for every ministry that survives many fail, said Kurt Frederickson, an associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of pastoral theology. The inmates' life experience, however, could redefine traditional notions about what a successful church is.
"It would be very difficult for a graduate who's just spent the last four years in jail to become the pastor of a suburban church, but that same person who moves back to the place where he grew up could create a congregation that fits his neighborhood and that could be amazing," Frederickson said.
It would be hard for such a minister to build a megachurch like Rick Warren's massive Saddleback Church in Orange County, he said.
"It'll never become a Saddleback and we'll never hear about it — but it could be really transformative."