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.