After taking the role of president of the Vancouver School of Theology, Rev. Dr. Richard Topping heard Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, at a leadership course. LeBlanc talked about finding students in unusual places: prisons.
“That was a radical word of grace,” Topping said, noting Jesus’ words about people visiting others in prison. It started a discussion at VST about what that could mean in Western Canada.
After many conversations with faculty and a federal prison, VST is now preparing to launch a certificate program for inmates. Over the period of about a year, faculty will drive out to a prison and teach interested inmates once a month. With reading and writing in between, prisoners would be able to earn a certificate in theology.
The courses will feature VST faculty’s work, and the cost, borne by the school, is minimal – the faculty’s time and fuel to get them to and from the prison. The faculty, Topping said, are enthusiastic about the opportunity to help a new group of students explore theology in creative new ways.
“This could be a good venue for us to show people what a missional organization may look like,” Topping said. “I have no doubt this will be a deep learning for us about a people we’ve never been with involved with.
“We may think we’re bringing salt and light, but I think we’re going to find a lot of salt and light if we allow this to be permeable for us.”
As a nation, Canada has been facing the ways past generations dealt with Indigenous peoples. VST has had an Indigenous Studies Program for more than 30 years, and Topping notes that a “disproportional number of people in prison in Canada are Indigenous, very much like the African-American population in the United States.”
“What does that mean to us as a school that is committed to both truth and reconciliation?” he asked. This will be another way to engage.
While other schools do prison outreaches, VST is a small school with a dozen faculty members. The thought going in was that the school needed more resources. Topping has found otherwise.
“You don’t need to be a robust institution with endless resources to do it, you just have to care,” Topping said, “and I’m blessed that I work with people who care.”