Dispatches from Handlon Campus 2/20

Editorial Note: In this piece, the writer chooses to use a dated spelling of the word “Muslim.” While “Moslem” can carry offensive connotations, we have chosen to keep the original spelling to respect the intentions of the author and at the recommendation of the Calvin Prison Initiative.

My heart overflows with gratitude as I think about the fact that in a matter of months I will be receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Calvin University by way of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). As I near this momentous event, I reflect on 2018 when this journey began. This was the year that I received my acceptance letter to then-Calvin College. The letter began with “Congratulations.” My eyes welled with tears of joy. This was the first time in my life that I received any form of congratulatory letter.

The thought of receiving a college education filled me with joy. I reflected on my level of education, accepting that up to that time all I could claim was a seventh grade education. While I received my GED from the W. J. Maxey Boys Training School in 1992, I had no other formal education. I picked up my acceptance letter again and carefully read every word: “congratulations,” “Bachelor’s degree,” “leadership,” “opportunity,” “education.” Each word jumped out from the page at me.

However, while each of these words filled me with pride, one filled me with dread. On the lower right side of my acceptance letter I read “Calvin Theological Seminary.” That word, “theological,” neutralized every previous feeling of joy.

As a Moslem within the Michigan Department of Corrections I had engaged in countless debates in defense of Islam. For me, defending Islam from outsiders was the norm and not the exception. However, as years passed, I had grown tired of the debates. They were fruitless and led only to unnecessary conflicts. I resigned myself to let God judge where we differ, as articulated in the noble Quran.

Now understanding that Calvin was a Christian university, I wondered if I was going to be forced to defend my faith again. Fellow inmates as well as fellow Moslems warned that I better be ready for years of battle.

I was conflicted. Engaging in religious battles was not what I was seeking. I wanted an education that was going to expand my worldviews, an education that would help me to think critically and offer the necessary tools that could be put to use at the service of others. After all, uplifting fallen humanity is what I am called to do.

As I arrived at the Handlon Campus, I was suspicious of every CPI student that greeted me. While they stretched out their welcoming hands, I waited for the proverbial knife to penetrate my back. I was, after all, a Moslem, an outsider. Then, classes began. Within the first year, while many college students focused on gaining a foundation or transitioning to the new college environment, I prepared for battle.

However, after my first two semesters, I noticed that no one focused on my faith; not one single professor or student concerned themselves with who was a Moslem and who was not. Instead, professors focused on teaching and students on learning. I began to relax as my first year in college came to a close, and I decided to reorient my focus to my education.

Nearly five years later I am deeply grateful for the opportunity that Calvin University and the CPI offered me. During these years I have been accepted with open arms to participate in CPI’s Theological Club, Restorative Justice Club, Inside/Out Dads, Compassion Class and Jubilee Fellows. At no time was I made to feel as an outsider but accepted as a member of the community. This example I hope to carry with me throughout my journey in life, be it in prison or society.

Thank you for accepting me into your community and creating the opportunity to add you to mine.

Wilson Rivera Bey (Class of 2023)

Guest Writer