ROSHARON, Texas (SWBTS) – “Break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.” These words, sung by 35 men wearing black graduation robes over prison whites, opened the fourth commencement ceremony of Southwestern Seminary’s Darrington extension. Four years ago, these same men constituted the incoming freshman class of the bachelor’s degree in biblical studies taught by Southwestern Seminary professors at the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC). On May 7, they received their diplomas as friends, family, distinguished guests, underclassmen, and their seminary professors watched them walk across the stage in the chapel at Darrington. 

“Graduations happen throughout our state,” Deputy Executive Director of TDCJ Oscar Mendoza told the crowd gathered in the chapel. “But graduations like this only happen at the Darrington unit.”

Mendoza was one of several guests who addressed the graduating class. Texas State Senator John Whitmire, Founder and CEO of the Heart of Texas Foundation Grove Norwood, and Southwestern President Paige Patterson also brought words of encouragement, celebration and commission to the seminary graduates.

Grove Norwood, the man who initially had the vision to begin this program in Texas, said, “To you, our sons, be humble, and you won’t stumble. Speak less than you know. Guard your integrity with your life.” 

The 35 graduates will now deploy in teams of four or five as “field ministers” to other Texas prisons. When this class is deployed, Darrington will have sent field ministers to 26 prisons across the state of Texas. These 26 prisons represent 65,000 men whom the ministers will have the unique chance to reach. Because of the Darrington program, 48 percent of the prison population in the state of Texas will now have access to pastoral care through Darrington field ministers.

Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson spoke to the graduates from Psalm 119:9-11 and reminded them of the unique role they will fill in prisons across Texas. He said, “The enterprise upon which you are entering—the faithful, shepherdly care of hundreds of other men whom you are going to have the opportunity to serve—that is a great thing, but only if you follow the commandments of God and seek them with all your heart.”

Patterson emphasized the students’ diligence in studying God’s Word “day and night” over the last four years, but he reminded them, “It’s not enough to simply get God's Word in your head unless it makes the 18-inch travel from the head to the heart.”

Patterson challenged the men to be faithful to share the Gospel in even the darkest of places. “As you go out to the assignments God has given you to do, I challenge you: Don’t be afraid of anybody … the Gospel is for every precious one of those men. You will see unbelievable things happen. God bless you as you share Christ with every man.”

New Seminary Building Dedicated

Guests who attended the graduation also had the opportunity to visit the newly constructed seminary building at Darrington, which features new classrooms, a robust theological library, a new computer lab, and office space for the faculty. In a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building, Grove Norwood acknowledged the many partners who contributed to the structure.

Four people—representing the State of Texas, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Heart of Texas Foundation—cut the ceremonial ribbon after Norwood’s dedication. Each representative was given a ceremonial key to the prison in acknowledgement of his unique role in the new building.

“We dedicate this place to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ,” said Norwood. “We dedicate it to the spiritual freedom and new birth in Christ of all who come through these portals. We dedicate this building to the prodigals and the seekers and the hungry and the forlorn whom, through the effort of this outstanding faculty, we will see changed and equipped to go and share their faith and their new hope with other people.”