Here’s How We Got Started

Avenal, California

Here’s how we got started. Like so many other great ideas, this summer project started over coffee in February. Dr. Heather Warren, very graciously, bought me a chai latte at the Starbucks in Gibson Hall. Both of us are talkers, so we were there for a while. The drinks were cold by the time we began to reminisce about my semester in her American religious autobiography class. “You were kind of a guinea pig,” she said.

As a native C-Villian, I had the opportunity to take religion classes at U.Va. in high school. At sixteen, I had no idea how a collegiate religion department worked, so it was really by the providence of God and the scheming of some very dedicated faculty members that I ended up taking Dr. Warren’s seminar in the first place.

“You were kind of a guinea pig. The class is usually only open to students who are about to graduate because it’s really written for people at pivotal stages in their lives, you see. Theoretically it should work for a high school student as long as they kept up with the reading. And, well, you’re living proof.” To my recollection, that’s when Nathan walked up and joined our conversation: “I took it when I was an undergrad here. 2009.” “I’ve taught the class for a long time. Actually, taught it at a church first,” Dr. Warren said, and then the fateful words: “But I’ve always wanted to teach it in a prison.”

I really cannot tell you why I was immediately so taken with the idea. I have never been involved with prison ministry and my only real interest in law enforcement is my own personal safety. But as soon as Dr. Warren made the suggestion “I’ve always wanted to teach it in a prison” I felt a switch flip. I want to do that.

As soon as we got back from spring break, I asked the two of them if they would be willing to meet to discuss the idea. “I’ll do it! I mean, why don’t we do it? I’ll do all the legwork: clearance, money, logistics, curriculum. I’ll get it all together.” Like the book of Acts, in one accord, they agreed to divvy up the workload with me.

Over the next month, we became phone-hounds: wardens, prison chaplains, education directors—pretty much anybody who had anything to do with prisons and teaching. Every other day we left a message on another voicemail. But all those calls did not, unfortunately, bring much headway. Some were returned. Most were lost in the unsearchable depths of state bureaucracy. By the end of April, it was clear that we had lost the window of opportunity. There was no way this project was going to fly that summer. But as Miley Cyrus once sang, “Keep the faith, baby. It’s all about the climb.”

Over the next three months, I got camp jitters about the project. You know, camp jitters—when you spend the school year away from all your summer-camp friends and then you get nervous that everyone’s going to have changed and no one will like you. Well, I had the calendric opposite. All summer long, I kept thinking about the project and in the fall I timidly sent around emails to Nathan and Dr. Warren. Do we still want to do the project? I would like to do the project, ya know, if everyone else still does.

To my relief, not only had Dr. Warren and Nathan kept the dream alive, but they had given it loads of thought. They knew where to find a host facility, clearance and funds. That is how this little idea became a Summer Internship in Lived Theology. We had a list of five or six grants accepting applications. Some required a graduate-undergraduate research team: check. Some required field research: check. But none of them had the sort of structure that we found in the PLT Summer internship: blog posts, reading list, a mentor-relationship, a stated theological conviction. The rest were just funding. This was a much larger vision.

A little bit about the Project for those who do not know: the Project is fourteen years old this year. Its mission is to facilitate the interconnection of theology and lived experience and by so doing, to offer academic resources to the pursuit of social justice and human flourishing. It has itself flourished in the bottom of Gibson Hall with the hard work of people like Dr. Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, Kelly Figueroa-Ray, Rachel Butrum—the list goes on. So Nathan and I wrote a proposal to mesh our vision with the Project’s vision in the form of the Summer Internship.  That partnership made all the difference in my expectations for this teaching experience.

It’s amazing the sort of paths God makes with our wanderings. You go to get money for an idea and you come back with a wholly new idea. You go to grub a few bucks, for research of course, and you come back with a whole support network. Now, with the help and guidance of the Project, I can see a much larger possibility for what appears to be just a volunteer teaching-gig: not only to teach, but also to be taught; not only for the students to learn the art of autobiography, but also to hear their individual stories; not to gain a captive student-audience, but to afford to the voiceless incarcerated an open forum.

What is, perhaps, different about our project is that it is our project. Most of the summer internships have been centered around a single undergraduate, a lone agent on a mission. But my project is, and has been since the beginning, a partnership with Nathan Walton with the guidance of Dr. Heather Warren. Without them not only would this idea never have come about, but its final realization would not have been possible. They are as much a part of this project as I, “the intern.” Thanks to you both.

We will keep you updated on how it goes. But anyway, that’s how we got started.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Avenal, California

Stephen Tourlentes
(American, born 1959)

Date: 1997
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 48.6 x 58.3 cm (19 1/8 x 22 15/16 in. )
Classification: Photographs
Credit Line: Purchase, Charina Foundation Inc. Gift, 2000
Accession Number: 2000.74
Rights and Reproduction: © Stephen Tourlentes