Divine Hope’s classes are rigorous, but the standards aren’t the same as The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Westminster Seminary. That’s because almost none of its students has been to college; in fact, most didn’t finish high school. The prison offers GED classes, and the seminary requires a high school diploma or GED before entrance. It runs like a Bible college, with courses in systematic theology, biblical theology, hermeneutics, Christian ethics, Christian history, practical theology, and the biblical languages.
It took around eight hours for Renaldo Hudson to kill Folke Peterson.
Peterson, 71, was a retired carpenter living in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Hudson, 19, lived in the same apartment building with his father, who was the janitor.
Hudson knocked on Peterson’s door on June 6, 1983, pretending he was there to fix a light fixture. When Peterson turned his back, Hudson attacked, certain the man was hiding money.
From around 7 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., Hudson stabbed Peterson 60 times, pausing occasionally to search for money and watch TV. After Peterson was dead, Hudson hid the knife in a chair and started the body on fire to hide his tracks.
It didn’t work. He was caught immediately, turned in by his aunt who noticed his blood-stained clothing and several unfamiliar items—old watches, some silverware, a decanter.
“I was sure he had a million dollars somewhere,” said Hudson, now 53. Turned out, Peterson had $4.
In prison, Hudson was trouble, attempting escapes and fighting with other inmates. A jury sentenced him to death. But even on death row, he didn’t calm down.
“Even the serial killers and rapists on death row didn’t want to be with me,” he said. His behavior was bad enough to get him kicked off death row, earning him a transfer to another prison. After an altercation with an officer there, he was given a year in isolation.
Then one day, Hudson heard a Louis Farrakhan tape, in which Farrakhan asked, “What are you good for? Or are you good for nothing?”
Wanting to be good for something, Hudson turned to Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Soon after, an officer told him he’d take a day off his isolation punishment for every Bible verse he memorized.
Hudson started with “Jesus wept,” but eventually memorized so many he dropped his isolation time to just 90 days. With the words of God in his heart, he became a Christian (though was still considered so dangerous that he was baptized with his shackles on).
“I’m in prison—literally—but prison is no longer in me,” Hudson, now 53, told TGC. He’s been behind bars for 34 years, his good behavior so steady for the last 23 that he’s been moved to a lower-security prison and allowed to serve as the chaplain’s assistant. (His death sentence was commuted when Illinois Governor George Ryan cleared death row in 2003.)
Last month, Hudson was part of the first class to graduate with a four-year diploma from Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary.
Because of this training, Hudson preaches sermons to fellow prisoners. He evangelizes on the yard. He prays “all the time.” And the man who dropped out of school in sixth grade has studied Greek and Hebrew, memorized parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, and written papers on systematic theology. (“To be Reformed is to be informed,” he says.)
“What we’re trying to do is something in a long history of theological education, going back to the Netherlands, going back to Calvin’s Geneva, where we had a concern for intelligent piety,” Divine Hope administrator and professor Nathan Brummel said at the graduation ceremony, one where the graduates wore prison blues and the invitation-only audience was locked in.
From the beginning, “our concern was not just to have a lot of smart students,” he said. “We want to have students who know God in his triune majesty and his marvelous grace, but we also want to have students who love God and love their neighbor and walk in all godliness. . . . God has answered that prayer.”
In the last half decade, Divine Hope has grown from one faculty member to four, from one prison to five, from 25 students to 110. Classes have expanded to include a program on fathering, a Bible study at the women’s prison, and a Spanish-language worship service.
“When I came to prison I could not read and write,” Hudson said. “Today they’re giving me a four-year degree in Christian studies. That’s to the glory of God. If they would’ve said to me the day I was arrested, ‘If you can spell can, you can go home,’ I’d still be in that bullpen. But today I can talk about transubstantiation. I can talk about systematic theology. I know about the Belgic Confession.”
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