Thirty-four new graduates of Southwestern Seminary’s undergraduate program at the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice received more than bachelor’s degrees on Monday, May 8. They earned the opportunity to improve the lives of others in return.

The inmates earned a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies upon completing the 125-credit-hour program. TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier, speaking to inmates’ families and friends assembled at the commencement ceremony, had encouraging words for the graduates.

“Your life experiences combined with your faith and education have prepared you for a unique mission field. We’re excited to see the changes that happen in your life and in others,” said Collier. “Graduation is not the end, but just the beginning.”

Darrington is a men’s prison in Rosharon, Texas, housing about 1,700 inmates. The graduating inmates will go to other Texas prison facilities where they will serve as field ministers to minister to their fellow offenders. The majority of the graduates will spend the duration of their lives behind bars. Their duties include making contact with newly incarcerated offenders as they first get off the bus, grappling with a lifetime of imprisonment. They lead Bible studies and praise and worship teams or minister to offenders who are in hospice care and are dying. They counsel those who are contemplating suicide. And they speak the last words of encouragement a fellow inmate hears before he boards a bus that takes him to the free world.

“It’s a great opportunity to do something,” said 47-year-old Kasaan Johnson, who is 11 years into a 50-year aggravated robbery sentence. “It gives you the tools to give back to the prison population.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sens. John Whitmire, Kelly Hancock and Eddie Lucio attended the graduation and voiced their support. “Sometimes, when you’re in a miracle, you don’t see the miracle,” Patrick said, directly addressing the graduates from the stage in the prison’s chapel. “You all are miracles.” Patrick and Whitmire both encouraged graduates to “not let them down” and to serve well as field ministers.

The program, sponsored by the TDCJ, Southwestern Seminary, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation, is offered at no cost to taxpayers—it is funded through grants and donations. Whitmire said Monday that the Darrington program has been so successful that plans are being made to expand the program to include the women’s prison unit.

Monday’s graduation was the third class to walk across the stage since the program’s inception. Southwestern Seminary launched the Darrington program in 2011. Now, 100 graduates are serving as field ministers at facilities across the state, and 185 inmates are currently enrolled.

During the graduation ceremony,  Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson brought a message from Acts 23:12-24, reminding the graduates that they will face adversity as field ministers, but encouraging them to recall that God will use them in a mighty way. As Patterson handed out diplomas, some inmates exchanged smiles and waves with family members in the crowd, triumphantly hoisting their diplomas into the air. Many are the first to earn a degree in their family. For others, earning the degree and becoming a field minister is a means to influence their siblings and children—that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Afterward, the new graduates walked across the hall to the prison gym, where they huddled in prayer with the current seminary students they will now mentor and minister to. Hancock reminded the inmates that Paul, too, was a prisoner when he penned his portion of the New Testament; he encouraged the inmates to make a difference for Christ wherever they are.