NORCO, Calif. The prison guards at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a Level II correctional facility in Norco, Calif., rushed in when they saw a group of inmates submerging a man's head in the communal sinks, thinking they were preventing a race-related murder.
"The guards come in wanting to know why the races are all together. They thought we were trying to drown the guys, but we were just baptizing them," said Cary White, the man baptizing the three new believers on that day.
White received a seminary-level education while serving his sentence in CRC through The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), a program developed by World Impact and facilitated by Prison Fellowship to provide seminary classes to prison inmates and the urban poor.
The program has been so successful in curbing violence behind bars that prison guards and the California Department of Corrections have taken notice, some even inviting TUMI into their prisons. This year, TUMI is expanding from five to 26 California prisons.
And while the privately funded program currently is only offered in California, Florida, and Michigan, Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske said the goal is to have at least one TUMI project in every state within the next three to five years.
TUMI began six years ago, when Prison Fellowship and World Impact collaborated to to address the lack of pastors raised up from America's urban poor.
Keith Phillips, World Impact's president, said that an expensive seminary education is inaccessible to many: "Historically, if you happened to be urban and poor and you wanted a theological education, you'd have to change cultures or you'd have to know someone who is rich."
TUMI helps address this problem by training prisoners to be pastors and preparing them for ministry behind bars and in their communities. Graduates of TUMI receive a Certificate in Christian Leadership Studies, an education equivalent to a Masters in Divinity, minus the study of Greek and Hebrew.
"The guys who came out are thoroughly trained, deeply rooted, and capable of rightly dividing the word of truth," Phillips said.
Before joining TUMI, White had been in and out of county jail and state rehab programs for years. He was en route to a prison in Jamestown, Calif., when the prison guards randomly escorted him off the bus one stop early at CRC, White said: "I started arguing with the guard because it wasn't the right prison."
The logistical mistake brought White to one of the five California prisons that offered a pilot TUMI program in 2008.
When White heard about TUMI through Prison Fellowship, he realized that God had placed a calling on his life: "I began to see God's fingerprints on my life from the time when I was a child to when I was taken to the wrong prison. I broke down crying and realized that [CRC] was my training ground."
White and his seven TUMI classmates studied 30-40 hours a week outside of class, working through 16 ten-week courses that covered Biblical studies, urban missions, Christian ministry, theology and ethics.
As their zeal for Christ and knowledge of the Bible grew, the TUMI students became leaders in their dorms and the prison yard: "Almost every single student that was enrolled was literally planting churches in their cell blocks," White said.
Prison Fellowship's Liske said that some of these TUMI students are serving 10-, 20-, or 30-year sentences: "They broke the law, and they need to pay the price, but now they have found a way to redeem the time. Now they are asking how many souls they can reach for Christ inside those walls."
Most prisoners only give Christians one chance before deeming them hypocrites, White said. But as White lived out his faith, many were drawn to him as a peacemaker. White's prison block made him an official representative to regulate racial disputes: "When I left my dorm all the inmates got together and made a huge going-away card, thanking me for all the riots that I had prevented."
Even the wardens noticed a difference in White and the other TUMI students, and the guards in CRC began requesting to be assigned to the units with TUMI students.
Outside of CRC, others also are inviting the program to their prisons: "We've had wardens, governors, and private prisons ask us to bring TUMI," Liske said. Even the California Department of Corrections created a special classification for TUMI that keeps inmates from being transferred until they are finished with the program, Liske said.
As a 2011 Supreme Court ruling forces California to release tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons, World Impact's Phillips believes TUMI alumni will make an impact outside cell walls: "Imagine seeing these scores of men coming out of California prisons with the equivalent of a seminary-level education and then being dropped in the major cities of America, ready to assist in planting churches."
Today White is out of prison and reconciled with his family. He works as a mentor and board chairman at a TUMI facility in Riverside, Calif., and also is studying for a Masters in Divinity.He said the band of Christians inside prisons is growing exponentially: "When I started there were eight men [in TUMI], and we brought 70. Now imagine what work those 70 can do for the Kingdom in a 4,000-man prison."