As a project manager for an organization that provides entrepreneurial training in underserved and under-resourced communities, Lejia “Jia” Johnson oversaw an initiative that offered re-entry entrepreneurship training to returning citizens. This spring, she extended her assistance inside Cook County Department of Correction’s maximum security facility, co-teaching a pilot course, Introduction to Theological Reflection, which was designed by Dr. Jenny McBride, associate dean of Doctor of Ministry Programs and Continuing Education and assistant professor of Theology and Ethics.
“With reentry work, I am mindful of the many reentry barriers people face when trying to reintegrate back into their communities,” said Johnson, a master of arts in Public Ministry student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Through the cross-registration program that’s available to students who attend one of 12 schools that are part of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools, Johnson was able to register for the McCormick class that gave her a unique opportunity to teach at a correctional facility. “In the jail setting, what was new for me, was being mindful of the many stressors and traumas the students experience on a day-to-day basis. Being understanding of their lived experience before and after they came to class made us intentional about creating a learning space where their humanity was honored despite being in an environment that sought to dehumanize them.”
One of the insights Johnson gained from the experience was seeing that reflecting on theological principles helped students recognize that the Kingdom of God is for everyone—including those who had caused harm. One particular incident captured for Johnson how the course had reshaped a student’s thinking and actions. “On the final day of class, a student told us about getting a new cellmate,” recalled Johnson, who was a 2018 “New Faces of Ministry” inductee selected by the Center for Faith and Service based on McCormick’s campus. “The cellmate was experiencing withdrawals from substance dependency and was ill. Because of the course, rather than withdrawing, neglecting or teasing the man in his physical pain and suffering, the student said he offered his sick inmate consolation and a pair of socks to warm his feet.”
The course was more than a course for Johnson; it was a way to be in solidarity with people who are marginalized. “So many students told Jenny and me that the course transformed the way they see Jesus and understand the meaning of the Cross; some expressed that their worldview had changed,” she said. “Often people engage in prison ministry believing that they are bringing God to the “ungodly.” We did not bring God to these men. God was already there with them.”