Proud of their achievements after having invested in long hours of study, research, and course work, the graduates stood tall on the stage to receive their diplomas and certificates.
The graduates were residents of San Quentin who had completed the Gateway Theological Seminary, which held a long-delayed graduation ceremony Sept. 29, 2023, at the prison’s Garden Chapel. GTS provides bible education and equips its students for ministry service. Six incarcerated persons received awards in recognition of their efforts.
GTS educator Robert Lawler said that he recognized a unique quality in San Quentin. “I see the fluency in speaking of their faith easily and the tightness of their theology; there’s clear understanding who God is and who they are in God. There’s a heightened sense of purpose here.”
Miguel Rodriguez, the seminary’s North Bay director, called the heart of the seminary using the heart of Jesus to minister to those in prison, based on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.
In this pandemic-delayed graduation, the seminary’s first one since 2018, Rodriguez announced, “Thank God, he removed obstacles. And thanks to Lt. Gardea for working hard in helping us get the event to happen.”
The ceremony began with instrumental melodies by the five members of the band Greater Good, followed by a brief prayer from instructor Sik-Lam Wong.
SQ resident Sergio Alvarez shared his personal testimony of transformation, entitled “Broken,” in which he compared himself to broken glass with “sharp edges” before his acceptance of Christ in jail. He said that he had felt bored senseless with nothing to do but reflect on his past — until the day an officer handed him a Bible to read.
He said that he had “devoured the book,” declaring, “I read from the very title. I didn’t miss any letter. I worked my way to the very end.” He said that God softened his sharp edges through God’s revelation.
“It is so positive, and he is not the same man he was years ago,” said each of his two sisters, who attended the celebration. They affirmed the change they saw in him, saying, “This is definitely his calling from God.”
Instructor Pastor Jackson Koo left a nursing career 25 years ago to focus on his prison ministry calling. He has served the incarcerated Thai community through House of Blessing since 2013. For the past ten years, he has taught hermeneutics, leadership, and church history with GTS.
He said rehabilitative efforts for every incarcerated person must begin with cognizance development — to gain an awareness of the spiritual side of rehabilitation that can lead to spiritual cognizance. Jackson applied the term “conquerors” to students who focus on both aspects. He congratulated them, saying, “Hats off to the overcomers.”
The instructors lauded the graduating students of theology. The seminary’s advance director, Dr. Warren Haines, called out the graduates’ names as he awarded their accomplishments. Students who completed half the course earned a certificate; those who completed the full earned a diploma. Students who completed an extra four lessons received both credentials.
The graduates shared similar reasons for taking seminary courses. Some were seeking a change in their lives, some focused on counseling to help others, and yet others simply wanted to understand what they believe. In the end, they all viewed the classes as an opportunity of a lifetime — a vital transformation.
“It shows that a person can really change; that he can grow spiritually and have a different perspective in life: a true heart conversion,” said graduate Michael Boutta about the course.
He encouraged everyone thinking about joining the seminary to do so, saying, “Open [your] eyes … there is something here that is far better than just living.”
GTS Director Miguel Rodriguez also teaches the Latino community. The seminary offers theology courses in Spanish. Seven Spanish speakers at SQ had enrolled in the program, and three completed it.
Speaking of this particular need, Rodriguez said, “They’re followers of Jesus. We want them to grow to better use their talents to serve God.”
Rodriguez extended the invitation to all Spanish speakers seeking to grow in their faith, saying, “If you want a wonderful journey, come on board. We will equip you.”
The ceremony brought together SQ resident and graduate Arnoldo Rivas with his son Milton in a powerfully emotional reunion. “This [seminary] is a blessing,” Milton said.
Arnoldo also acknowledged what a blessing it was to receive the courses in his native Spanish language. He encouraged the Latino community to partake in the classes.
“Don’t waste more time,” he said. “When you trust the Lord, He’ll help us reach the impossible.”
“We are called to go where we can be a light,” added his son.
— Staff Writer Richard Fernandez contributed to this report.