A Mentor to Men Behind Walls

In 1985 I was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. I struggled to survive in the maximum security hell hole, Sing Sing, and did many things I was not proud of to stay alive. Being in prison for many years had drained me spiritually and emotionally. There were times when the only emotion I was aware of was a quiet, smoldering rage. Because of the barriers I’d built to survive, I’d become desensitized, and I knew it. There was still a part of me that could see myself from the outside in, and what I saw I didn’t like: a callous, bitter individual consumed with the injustices of the world. I knew that I needed to heal if I ever wanted to interact normally with people upon release. I had some insight into human behavior because of the bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science I’d earned from Mercy College in 1993. The problem was, the program was over and I had to serve an additional 7 years.

The walls of negativity were beginning to close in on me again when a friend told me about a unique program he’d recently joined known as the New York Theological Seminary, a one-year, 42-credit program that afforded a select group of Sing Sing prisoners the opportunity to earn a Masters of Professional Studies in Ministry. Opened in Sing Sing in 1983, the New York Theological Seminary was the only program of its kind in the country, a graduate-level religious studies program that required a four-year degree from an accredited university to join. The program demanded intense academic scholarship and a commitment to personal growth. Each year, hundreds of prisoners applied but only fifteen were accepted. I was fortunate to be chosen by Dr. George “Bill” Webber, the longstanding director of the program that was a fearless champion of prisoners’ rights. Under his leadership, the seminary program provided theological education to prisoners at Sing Sing.

The program has graduated hundreds of men, many of whom are now social workers, pastors, prison reform advocates and educators. Few have ever returned to prison. Of those serving life sentences, many have devoted their lives to teaching and ministry in prison. When state funding for College programs ended, Dr. Webber organized Rising Hope, a program which provides college level education to inmates who have received their GED.

Rev. Webber brought together men of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds to this program. A recurrent theme was that of “koinonia,” or authentic community. Koinonia encompasses the belief that we must reject the differences between us to create a society where class distinction is nonexistent and the poisons of racism, sexism and nationalism disappear. He taught me that the core of the seminary teachings was based on liberation theology, rooted in “praxis,” or action as an essential ingredient in all theological method. Its hermeneutical approach argues that we cannot begin to understand, criticize, or verify the meaning of scripture or tradition unless we are approaching it from the actual practice of liberation, from concrete involvement in trying to make the world better.

For the first few months of the program, I struggled to find a foothold. I considered dropping out, but Bill Webber urged me to persevere. He suggested that I sharpen my skills as an observer of human behavior because in learning how to deal with others, I would gain mastery over myself. I would learn to understand my emotions, he said, and to feel again.

In every confrontation I faced, whether with a prisoner, a correction officer or an outsider, I tried to apply what I was learning in the seminary to gain insight into my fellow man and the world around me. For the first time in years, I felt empathy. Bill had successfully taught me how to be a human being once again. In 1997 I received executive clemency from Governor George Pataki. Upon my release I became an activist and have fought endlessly for reform of draconian drug laws that put hundreds of thousands of non-violent individuals in prison for many years.

In 2004, the New York Theological Seminary established the George W. Webber Chair in Urban Ministry in his honor. On May 19, 2000, he received the Union Medal from Union Theological Seminary. The award included these words: “George Webber, your passion for faith-based justice has helped shape the perspective of several generations of Protestant clergy engaged in urban ministry. Your imaginative grasp of the problems that confront an embattled urban church in an expanding and often violent city has given new meaning to the concept of Christian mission.”

Bill Webber, a spiritual father to many men behind and beyond the walls, will be surely missed. Memorial services are tentatively planned in Sorrento, Maine in August and in New York City in October.

Gifts to NYTS in celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. George “Bill” Webber can be made by clicking on the link below and selecting “GEORGE W. WEBBER CHAIR FUND” from the Program Designation drop-down box.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com





More articles by:

Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South