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Arts & Culture

Sacred Steps: An Evangelical Professor And Her Students Inside A Maximum Security Prison

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Karl Soderstrom
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Seminary professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom stands in front of a mural at a Chicago city park designed by her students, inmates at Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago. Clifton-Soderstrom started Illinois' first master's degree program inside a maximum security prison.

COVID-19 prison lockdowns prevented family and friends from visiting the nation's nearly two million prisoners, and they shut down education programs. At a maximum security prison near Chicago, one seminary professor managed to keep reaching inside.

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom grew up poor, completed college and graduate school, has a great job as a dean and professor at a Christian university in Chicago and a cabin in the Michigan woods. As many evangelical Christians would, she thanks Jesus for her good fortune. But when Michelle searches the Bible, she doesn’t go straight to the Jesus parts for inspiration.

She prefers "stories of failure, which are all over Scripture," she says. "Whether it’s as grand as King David’s failure, the failure in the garden, or the failures of society ... to be able to read those stories and know that the whole story is one of healing, restoration, reconciliation, redemption, and when you put those two things together you have the safety to then to fail yourself I think and know you’re going to be picked up."

Michelle is in her early 50s. She’s got unfussy, long brown hair. Dresses a bit like she’s ready for a hike. Looks you in the eye when she talks. When she walks across the campus at North Park University, where she teaches theology and ethics, a lot of people say hi.

With biblical stories of failure on her mind, Michelle did something a few years ago that no one at her seminary — or in her state — had done. She took those stories straight to men in a place that symbolizes their failure and society’s: Stateville Correctional Center. Michelle started Illinois’ first master’s degree program inside a maximum security prison.

The Sacred Steps series is a collaboration between KALW’s The Spiritual Edge and USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Funding comes from the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.