When an Intern Chaplain at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Crosswicks, NJ, Andre A. Samuels, ’18 MDiv, explored and deepened his passions for prison ministry and social justice. “I’ve always been interested in prison ministry,” said the recent graduate. “I love working with young men of color and with those who are marginalized and disenfranchised in some way.” Seeking to grow as a minister and stand in solidarity with those who are in prison, Samuels began his internship with a strong desire to teach and preach.
Developing and teaching an eight-week course on leadership and communication gave Samuels the opportunity to hone his skills as an educator. “The goal of the class was to encourage students to tell their own stories and share their own narratives,” he explains. “Because they’re in prison, everyone has an idea of who they are: criminals or felons. But I wanted to give them the opportunity to rewrite the narrative of their lives, to really look at themselves as God would look at them regardless of their sins, regardless of their past, and really be able to articulate that.”
But Samuels also quickly discovered that he had much to learn. “It was revolutionary for me,” he says. “I went to the prison with the intention to instruct and give hope, but those young men were the ones who ended up teaching me, challenging me, and giving me hope.”
Samuels says that his experience ministering to young men in prison particularly helped him to grow as a preacher. “I sat down beside one of the young men before I preached for the first time and told him that I was nervous,” he recalls. “And he immediately told me, ‘No, man, don’t be nervous. God’s got this. God is going to keep you.’ I was ready to tell these guys about the love of God, and here it is that they’re the ones preaching to me.”
So, too, did they teach Samuels about the importance of intentional preaching. “I learned that I can’t be careless with my words when preaching—speaking in clichés or using words to fill a void. Every word, every phrase—everything I say!—has to be communicated with meaning, purpose, and specificity, because they’re listening to every word.”
“My hope is that this project will highlight the need for sound, theologically relevant sermons and show how these sermons can affect change in the lives of the incarcerated while challenging the prison state.”
As his third and final year of MDiv study came to a close, Samuels continued to explore his intersectional passions for prison ministry, social justice, and preaching through an independent study on crafting sermons for the incarcerated under the supervision of Sally A. Brown, PhD, the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship. “Preaching in a prison is not like preaching in a church, especially within the black church context from which I come,” Samuels explains. “So, the first objective of the study was to figure out how I could find a balance between preaching pastorally and preaching prophetically against a system that is built on the degradation of bodies, especially bodies of color.”
His second objective was to apply that practically by compiling a collection of sermons that were both pastoral and prophetic, created specifically for the prison setting. These were written by Samuels himself and by several young men in prison. “The purpose was to give them agency to speak about their experience.”
Samuels plans to make the collection available to the wider public upon its completion and hopes that it will be used as a resource for all interested and involved in prison ministry. “My hope is that this project will highlight the need for sound, theologically relevant sermons and show how these sermons can affect change in the lives of the incarcerated while challenging the prison state.”
After graduation, Samuels hopes to continue working in prisons and to educate the church and his community about the wider problem of mass incarceration. He also has aspirations to teach business, leadership, and communication courses in a higher education setting and will continue his involvement with the AIMHigh Empowerment Institute, a youth empowerment organization that seeks to help young adults succeed in academics and in life.
“Sometimes, when these young people don’t have a role model or mentor to look at them affirmatively, it’s really important to tell them that they are loved,” Samuels reflects. “That’s what young people need, especially in prison—someone to reinforce that they are lovable and redeemable and that their lives matter.”