One of my favorite things about being a student at PTS is learning from the life experiences of other students and how it shapes their theology and ministry. Recently, classmate Erich Kussman ’19 MDiv and I were in Dr. Mark Taylor’s class on Incarnation and Incarcerated Bodies, in which we looked at the problem of mass incarceration in the United States and explored the ways in which Christology speaks into this reality and calls us to act. After Erich shared in Taylor’s class his story of incarceration and the ministry that was born out of his experience, we sat down for coffee and I asked him to tell you a little about how he came to PTS!
—Lauren Calvin Cooke ’17 MDiv
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: I grew up in Plainfield, NJ. Now I live in Springfield and commute. It’s about an hour drive, so I’m hoping to move down to Princeton in the near future. I’m a husband and a father of five. I’m also an elder chair at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Springfield, and I run a street ministry called Ransom Writers and Speakers that ministers to the formerly incarcerated. I sit on the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, and on the Union County Reentry Task Force. I also work with Petey Greene—it’s a program that sends college volunteers to help incarcerated men and women earn their GED’s. In 2008, when I was incarcerated, I was in their first trial program, and now I’m their spokesperson. I’m a candidate for ordination in the ELCA church. And I’m going into my second year as a seminary student.
Q: I don’t know how you do it all!
A: Me neither. I like to consider myself a professional juggler. It’s about the drive and passion, I guess, and loving what I do. Maybe part of it is that after being in prison so long, I just have so much energy and I just want to do as much as I can, live as much as I can.
It solidified my passion to help people in situations like mine, people who don’t get second chances, who are written off by society.
Q: How did you end up at PTS?
A: Well, I was incarcerated from 2001–2013. Back in 2006, my spiritual mentor Rev. Emmanuel Bourjolly—who is a PTS alumnus—was a chaplain at one of the institutions I was in. He helped me to grow spiritually, and gave me the passion to learn and continue studying the faith. He told me I was gonna go to Princeton Seminary one day, and I laughed at him. Lo and behold, here I am! He kind of paved the way for me to get here. He gave me a copy of Dr. Mark Taylor’s book The Executed God, and he told me it was a good book for me to read. After reading that book, my eyes were opened to the greater scale of the injustice of the prison system. I mean, I knew some of it through firsthand experience, but I didn’t know it was on such a national scale. It solidified my passion to help people in situations like mine, people who don’t get second chances, who are written off by society. And the theology in Dr. Taylor’s book helped me formulate my own theology around that.
Q: How has it been coming to PTS and working with Dr. Taylor?
A: It’s been fun! Meeting him in person for the first time was kinda crazy, because I had that starstruck feeling, like—Dr. Taylor is here at PTS! I actually get to learn from him! He’s very passionate, and I think two passions hand-in-hand can cause a holy explosion. I love looking toward new things ahead, and I’m excited about what PTS has to offer.
Q: What are some of your favorite classes you’ve gotten to take this year?
A: Dr. Taylor’s class of course, but that’s me being biased, because that’s the field I’m most passionate about, and I think I can add value to that with my own personal experience. Greek is fun—regardless of how people hear me talk about Greek, it’s fun because it’s challenging. At my age—36 years old—trying to learn a language is ridiculous, but the bigger the challenge, the harder I go at it. I also like Dr. Gross’s speech class—we have a lot of fun in there!
Q: What are some ways in which you hope to see PTS grow and change?
A: I hope that PTS can work to break down stereotypes so that the campus can be more welcoming. After I shared my story in class, I noticed that other students can’t help the way their perceptions of me have been influenced by the media and by culture. Some people don’t talk to me the same way anymore. So I hope that by more people sharing their stories, that can be broken down. I would also love to see PTS become more involved in prison reform and encourage more incarcerated people to study theology—either in prison, or after they get out.* Some of the best theologians I’ve met are the ones behind the walls. I call it Dirty Theology. God, this Being who is Other than us, came and decided to put on human skin. The word for human is from the same root as dirt in Hebrew, right—adamah—so God put on this dirt and rolled around in the mud with us to raise us up. And I think PTS has the potential to do that with and for people behind the walls. There are roses that can come up through concrete.
* In addition to Dr. Taylor’s Incarnation and Incarcerated Bodies class, in the fall of 2016 Dr. Mark Edwards taught Imprisoned Minds: Philosophy and Religion in Jail, which met at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility and consisted of PTS students as well as GSYCF students. Learn more
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“My field education placements lifted up my gifts for ordained ministry, and the dual-degree program helped me develop the skills for ministry.”