An April 11 commentary in The University News accused Dr. Kenneth Parker of being unforgiving and prone to finger pointing. As participants in Saint Louis University’s college-in-prison program, a ministry mentioned several times in the commentary, we are compelled to respond to this characterization of Parker. Our position can be expressed best through description of the example set and lesson taught by Parker at Bonne Terre on redemption, forgiveness and commitment to action.
When a public figure — a star athlete, a politician or a celebrity — falls into disgrace and later recovers his or her public image, the expression, “He has redeemed himself,” is often applied. Self-redemption is not an option for the prison inmate. Parker recognizes this. It requires not only the forgiveness of others but a willingness by others to spend time, money and effort to bring about necessary changes.
The application process for the college-in-prison program called for writing several essays. While not prompted explicitly, the wording of the questions offered the applicant an opportunity to write on his desire for change and growth — an expression of repentance. Willingness to invest in the prisoner required repentance on the part of the inmate.
This principle surfaced in the five theology classes of the initial certificate program. “Jesus said, ‘Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day; and the repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations…’” (Luke 24:46, 47 New American Standard Bible).
A puzzling portion of the commentary likened Parker to a self-proclaimed prophet ignoring the biblical principles of justice and forgiveness. Parker’s assignment of and teaching on the book of Amos to his students at Bonne Terre made clear his understanding of the link between justice, repentance and forgiveness. God called for authorities to stop oppressing the poor and powerless — to be just or face the consequences. A study of Nineveh’s response to Jonah’s warning, Sodom’s response to Lot’s pleas, and the two very different outcomes will confirm this lesson. The humble and repentant will meet with grace; others meet wrath.
The commentary attacking Parker stressed that he was quick to assign blame. This response would place greater emphasis on his “commitment to being part of the solution.” When Parker introduced himself here in 2008 and described the genesis of the prison ministry, he did indeed explain the political climate of the 1990s and mention the specific legislators that worked to end government funding of higher education in U.S. prisons. That’s part of the story. But 98 percent of his words were devoted to the efforts he and others made in recruiting people and soliciting organizations willing to contribute the time, treasure and work required to make the prison ministry possible. He saw the lack of on-site higher education in prison as a problem and set out to solve the problem. Parker was also quick to give credit to the many parties involved — with special emphasis on the critical support of Fr. Lawrence Biondi, S.J. While it is our belief that no one has worked harder to develop and maintain the prison ministry, we know no one is more grateful to those who have contributed than Parker. We are grateful to him and to all who have answered his call.
We at Bonne Terre are not in a position to judge whether or not grievances have been addressed or justice served on the main campus. We are convinced of Parker’s humility, confident in his commitment to justice and witness to his forgiving spirit. In short, we believe he embodies the mission and spirit of Saint Louis University. We are proud to have Parker represent us on the SLU campus, around the state and throughout the nation. It is our hope that others who love Saint Louis University share the same pride in having such a representative.