The first graduates of a new seminary program for incarcerated women in New York are modern-day examples of some of the greatest servant-leaders in Scripture, a state legislator said.
“There are so many stories of amazing, courageous and inspiring women like Esther and Mary, Ruth and Deborah, women who used the gifts that God gave them to do the work they’re called to do,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in videotaped remarks shared during the June graduation ceremony at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
The nine inmates earned master of professional studies degrees from New York Theological Seminary, making them the first graduates of the first master’s-level program for incarcerated women in the state’s history.
In addition to Gillibrand, the occasion included addresses from Que English, director of the center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and from NYTS President LaKeesha Walrond.
“As the first woman to lead NYTS, the Bedford Hills program means a lot to me on a personal level,” Walrond said. So many of these women have endured unimaginable trials, and now they are working to better themselves educationally while paying their debt to society.”
She launched the women’s program in 2022 as the seminary marked the 40-year anniversary of its first master’s program for male prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, also a first in New York at the time. That program has graduated 530 men and has achieved a recidivism rate of less than 1% over the past decade, the seminary said.
The professional studies degree includes biblical studies, ethics, history, mission and ministries studies and theology coursework, according to the seminary website.
Walrond lauded the inaugural graduates of the women’s program for blazing a trail for generations of female ministers to come.
“These women are overcomers who are making an investment now to equip themselves to serve the Bedford Hills community while they remain incarcerated and their home communities once they are released,” Walrond said. “It is my hope that their ministries will allow them to stand in the gap and intervene to help others in similar situations before they get to the point of arrest and incarceration. This is growth and self-reflection at their finest and highest levels.”
Gillibrand noted that she, as a person of faith, was taken by the courage and tenacity of the graduates. “You are all such incredible change-makers. You have used the power of faith and faith-based study to overcome enormous challenges. I’m so proud of you, and I know you’ll make profound difference in your communities and congregations.”
The senator also urged the graduates to remember the women of Scripture as they live into their callings.
“I draw tremendous strength from the lessons I’ve learned from the Bible,” Gillibrand said. “The Bible is full of stories of men, but the women I mentioned, and many others, did the work of saving their families, their cities and their people. I know there are many Esthers, Marys, Ruths and Deborahs in this graduating class. I know that as each of you goes out and does God’s good work, that you will inspire so many other women to follow in your footsteps and to make the world a better place.”
Plans are under consideration to expand the course offerings for inmates in New York prisons, the seminary said. “As NYTS continues to expand, there have been conversations about a strategic partnership with Union Theological Seminary, also led by the first woman president in the institution’s history, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones. Union has also partnered with Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to offer courses to incarcerated women in the past, including joint courses with Union students and incarcerated students held at the correctional facility.”