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A Long Awaited Graduation - Don Allsman

It was a three-hour drive through the desert before we arrived at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison near Blythe, California.  Our colleague, Gustavo Delgado (TUMI Satellite Administrator), volunteered to drive my wife Cathy and I to the first graduation of The Urban Ministry Institute in this prison, honoring a man named Albert.  It was Gustavo's first time to visit prison.  We knew it would be a special day for all of us.

Albert was among the first TUMI students at RJ Donovan Prison (San Diego) in 2008.  After finishing half of his required courses, he was suddenly transferred to Ironwood Prison, which had no TUMI program.  He and nine other TUMI students persistently asked Prison Fellowship to start TUMI in Ironwood and finally in 2012 their request was granted.  In April 2014 Albert was almost ready to graduate, but at the last minute he was again transferred to yet another prison – Chuckawalla, where again there was no TUMI program.  So finally Albert's graduation was approved by the prison and his special day arrived.

The three of us met with Prison Fellowship's staff and volunteers at the front security gate.  Among this delegation was a surprise guest: Gary Ashley, Albert's mentor from RJ Donovan.  After walking through the prison yard, we all entered into the small chapel and saw Albert in his cap and gown.  When Albert saw Gary Ashley, not having seen Gary since his days in RJ Donovan, Albert broke down in tears, rushed to him and thanked him for coming.

Here is what Albert wrote about himself for the graduation program:

"I was born in a rough neighborhood in the city of East Los Angeles.  My future prospects of making it through the barrio were slim to none.  Unfortunately I was destined to a life of crime and prison life.  I spent 36 years of my adult life in prison, not including my youth incarceration.  In 2008 I enrolled in The Urban Ministry Institute Capstone Curriculum of which I am very grateful for the spiritual education TUMI provided for me.  Through the help of my Lord and TUMI I have broken the cycle of violence and crime.  I am strongly rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.  I am strengthened in the inner man by the Holy Spirit."

We learned that when Albert first went to prison, he could not read or write his name.  He taught himself to read while in solitary confinement.  He said, "TUMI is the first thing I have ever finished in my life."  It was a proud day for Albert, for his Prison Fellowship mentors, and for us who had the joy of witnessing the grand transformation of a man who was once a criminal and now is a leader for the Kingdom of God.

Don Allsman is the Vice President of World Impact and TUMI Satellite Director.


Ferguson and a Way Forward - Efrem Smith

I write this post right after the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. The Grand Jury has made the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. There is television evidence showing that violence has already erupted in Ferguson. We need a way forward in the United States of America. A way that brings about healing, justice, peace, reconciliation, and transformation. My faith still leads me to believe that the best way to realize this is through the non-violent advancement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is the most excellent example of the declaration and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. The Church is the front line vehicle for this to be realized today. 

Though this is a tense, divided, and violent moment in our nation, there is a way forward that people of all races, classes, and political ideologies can grab hold of. But we must look deep into our hearts and ask ourselves how we desire to move forward. Do we want to continue to participate in a deeply divided nation by race, politics, and class? Or is there something on the inside of us that not only desires something better, but provides a push in our soul to participate in this something better? This something better is the Kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King Jr. called, The Beloved Community.

One of the ways we move forward, regardless of your personal opinion on this situation, is to grieve with the family of Michael Brown. This is biblical. We are reminded of this in the Gospel of Matthew to grieve with those who are grieving. We are also called biblically to love, forgive, and extend grace. Too many Christians are using this moment to extend political ideology and not the traits of the Kingdom that we are to represent.

Another way forward is for the Privileged to listen to and learn from those who are different from them and have different opinions. This is not the time to judge, argue, and patronize if you are privileged. This is a time to listen, pray, learn, and show amazing humility. This is a genuine way for the Kingdom of God to be expressed. As an African American male, my heart is heavy. This is all very difficult to take in and yes, I wonder if the African American life carries value in this nation. I need my Brothers and Sisters who are not African American to walk with me, pray with me, listen to me, and grieve with me. This kind of reconciling approach is a way forward.

Yet, another way forward is for the Church to not ignore this issue. The Church must be a force of racial reconciliation and righteousness. The Church must acknowledge that we live in a broken world. This includes not only broken people, but also broken systems. We must bring to bear the love, grace, transformative power, reconciliation, and justice of God upon this reality. The Church must be a bridge over social troubled waters of brokenness and division. Pastors who ignore these realities in their preaching and shepherding ignore the mission field outside their church walls. The Church must build a bridge between the police and under-resourced communities. The Church must build bridges between the "haves" and the "have nots." The Church must see, care for, and empower the Poor, the marginalized, and the undervalued. This is our biblical responsibility. The Church should not wait for unfortunate circumstances, but should be a constant force of transformation. We must prayerfully grab hold of this moment and find our way forward.

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Magnification and Prayer - Faith Watts

Almost every day, I find myself reciting 2 Corinthians 12:9 – "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Knowing that I do not walk in my own strength fills me with joyful song that I sometimes struggle to keep to myself. For every time I have to silence the humming child, I smile and think of the number of songs that creep into my own teaching and life at the mention of a memorable lyric. Often I find myself starting to share a song with students when I realize it will not completely apply to the given situation, so I change the lyrics to fit my circumstances and move forward. Sometimes students recognize the song, and occasionally point out the new lyrics. Often, they act as if they have never heard the song before, shrug at how well it fit the setting, and we all move on with the lesson. I sing at transitions for my own pleasure, and it makes the timing in my room move more smoothly. Praise God for His grace and many reasons to sing!

The students in fourth grade recently experienced the power of magnification. I added a microscope to the collection of learning tools in my classroom and it quickly became the most coveted area in the room. Regardless of what the slide contained, the students adored looking at minute items with the power of a light and well-adjusted glass lenses. Magnifying glasses fill us with just as much joy. When given the chance, we are just as likely to examine our finger prints and friends' teeth as the item at hand. During a recent science lesson on cells, we first looked at an onion with our eyes, then magnifying glasses, and ended with microscope slides of an onion skin. What a difference! Praise God for the incredible detail in His creation and our excitement about learning!

Fourth graders love discussions and asking questions in their learning process. As a school, we are studying a curriculum about peacemaking. In my classroom, we discussed peacemaking on a global level. We contemplated terrorists and the anniversary of 9/11. Since we are told in Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we debated the concept of enemies as people created by God and the concept of peacemaking when you deal with people who want to cause harm and destruction. It led us to consider the actions of global leaders who are fighting against terror. We continue to pray for our government leaders and their choices while lifting up the believers in the Middle East.

We also pray for persecuted believers around the world. While I often break out in song because my heart is filled with the joy of the Lord, there are situations in our world today which break His heart. As we give thanks this season for the good gifts He has given, we also consider those in situations less fortunate. 

Faith Watts is a fourth grade teacher at Newark Christian School.