Spiritual Rags to Riches

Spiritual Rags to Riches

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When Richard E. Shreves, 39, was asked to be the undergraduate commencement speaker at the 2018 Global University commencement held in June in Springfield, Missouri, it was likely one of the most unexpected moments in his life. For although he was graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Bible and Theology, Shreves has another 23 years before he is eligible for parole from the Montana State Prison system.

Shreves didn’t grow up in a religious home. Although his grandfather tried to share his faith with him as a young person, Shreves had no use for it and his lifestyle reflected it. Later, as a teen, in an attempt to win a girl’s affections, he cleaned up his act and started to attend church and even said the Sinner’s Prayer, but with no conviction. As the relationship ended, so did his “Christianity.”

Shreves had a real encounter with God when he was 17. After listening to a message about the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues by two World War II veterans, he agreed to let them pray for him.

“I was into some occult stuff by then,” Shreves says. “But when they prayed, I could feel something being ripped out of my body, like a carrot root — I started speaking in tongues and a little later my girlfriend’s mother described it as a shadow left my face and I appeared to have a glow.”

After a short time of living a “normal” secular life, Richard entered into another ill-fated relationship. When that went south, and after a failed half-hearted attempt at suicide, he resorted to using crank for the first time and filling his body with a cocktail of drugs — acid, crank, cocaine, ecstasy, or whatever was available — and dealing drugs as well. His world spiraled out of control.

In and out of jail and on the run from the law for possession of dangerous drugs and misdemeanor assault, his drug-addled mind was convinced his dealer, because of an unsettled debt, was out to kill him and hurt his family. So, when an unexpected encounter occurred with his dealer on Jan. 6, 2000, Shreves struck first. He is now serving a 60-year sentence for homicide, with no parole for 41 years.

LITTLE PACKAGE, LION HEART

Dr. Patricia (Pat) Berkram is a 4-foot-11 80-year-old who has been about God’s business for decades. As Pastor David Baker of Deer Lodge (Montana) Assembly noted, Berkram is on a mission from God and she doesn’t let things stand in her way to achieving His purposes.

At the age of 60, Berkram earned a Master of Divinity from AG Theological Seminary. Three years later, in 2000, she earned her Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. In 2003 she began a Bible study (followed later by some Global University courses) in the Shelby, Montana, regional prison. As time passed, she felt God leading her to bring the opportunity to the Montana State Prison (MSP) and its population of nearly 1,700 inmates.

At first her idea to bring Bible college courses to the prison was rejected. Undeterred, Berkram, who is also an RN, got a job as a nurse at MSP with an additional goal of getting a Global University course program launched within the prison.

A surprise to no one who knows her, she prevailed.

In 2008, Dr. Berkram (often called Dr. B by her students and peers), who taught at several Bible colleges, and her husband Elmer, worked with Tom Wilson, the Religious Activities Center (RAC) coordinator at MSP at the time. Together they launched the new effort with a study on Gordon Fee’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

“People connected to her — they called her ‘grandma,’” says Terrie Stefalo, who became RAC coordinator in 2012. “She believed prayer was part of the holistic medical treatment of an individual and if one asked for prayer, she would [even if it wasn’t officially encouraged].”

“She was a force,” agrees Baker. “It’s hard to say no to Dr. B.”

BECOMING A STUDENT

The road to Shreves becoming a true Christian began shortly after he committed the homicide. Sickened to the core as he realized that his actions likely sent a man to hell for eternity, he wept bitterly for the life he had taken and at the thought of the person he had become.

“Condemnation, self-loathing like a black cloud, settled on me,” Shreves says. “I felt like a heel before, but now I felt like a beast.” A couple weeks later, on Jan. 19, 2000, Shreves was arrested. He’s been in prison ever since.

But while at a regional prison in 2003, a pastor came in and a fellow inmate invited Shreves to attend the service. The minister was Spirit-filled and his message connected. “Everything he said got me thinking about how much God loved me and His mercy — that was enough,” he recalls. “I became a Christian and decided to really follow God, not just to know who He was and ignore Him.”

In 2009, after hearing about the opportunity the Berkrams were providing, Shreves decided to sign-up. Anyone who has taken a legitimate online or correspondence college course knows the courses are not free and Shreves learned the prison doesn’t pay for them. But when he discovered that financial assistance was available, the doors to a college education opened to him as the desire to get the answers to theological questions that he had held inside for so many years burned within him.

Approaching 6-foot, tipping the scales at 325 pounds, and having spent years in the weight room, Shreves is a strong and imposing figure – dwarfing the diminutive Pat Berkram. But a strong bond would form over time between teacher and student.

Shreves later learned that not only were many of the theological books made available to him and other students donated by the Berkrams, many times the scholarship money to pay for the courses came directly from the Berkrams’ checkbook or through her tireless fundraising efforts.

Shreves’ infant Christianity began to grow under Berkram’s tutelage and the Global University courses he studied.

“Having this lady come in, donating her time, dragging a suitcase full of books behind her . . . ,” Shreves says with a shake of his head. “I got into the studies and learning the truth about God and His words, realizing my perception was wrong — He didn’t give up on me; I had turned away from Him.”

Over the next three years, which included many a theological debate with classmates and Dr. B, Shreves earned his Associate of Arts in Bible and Theology.

As Shreves continued on to pursue his Bachelor of Arts, his faith became grounded in fact as his questions were answered and his mind was sharpened. “Great grades are great and deadlines are good,” he admits, “but what really helped me out was learning how to reason, have a position, and then defend that position.”

Stefalo, who has been working at MSP for 17 years, 10 of those being at the RAC, has witnessed Shreves’ growth firsthand over the years.

“He sacrifices a lot for what he believes in, in an environment that is so negative and anti- church,” Stefalo says. “He’s not your typical inmate at this prison — what he believes, he does and talks about it. Anybody who gets to know Richard knows he’s sincere inside and out, to a fault.”

And it’s not just the prisoners who give Shreves a hard time about his conversion. Guards can be jaded as well as they’ve seen plenty of these so-called “prison conversions” that were either far from authentic (an act to shorten a sentence) or were so shallow that once an inmate was freed or adversity struck, the reality of the conversion was exposed as a farce.

But Rob Weddle, the Undergraduate Grading coordinator at Global University, counts Shreves as a friend.

“It’s really amazing when you hear his story, how far he has come,” says Weddle. “I love Richard. He’s a true brother in Christ.”

As Shreves began to close in on completing his degree, the unimaginable happened. The unstoppable Dr. B suffered a debilitating stroke, which impacted her ability to speak. But God had things well in hand. Baker, who was Berkram’s pastor, was able to step in seamlessly and keep the GUIDE (Global University Independent Degree Educational) Program moving forward.

It should be noted that the ongoing respect, admiration, and gratitude assigned to Berkram is unmistakable — from students to ministers to MSP staff, there’s a rare mixture of reverence and love when they speak her name.

PRISON COMMENCEMENT

Prior to the Global University commencement in Springfield, a separate commencement was held at MSP. Included in the gathering were Associate Warden Tom Wilson, Director of Department of Corrections Reg Michael, local pastors (who served in various RAC ministries), Weddle, Baker, the Berkrams, Stefalo, and family members of Shreves and Daniel Robbins, who earned his AA, and others were present.

Shreves, the first-ever graduate of MSP GUIDE Program, was given time to address the gathering (starts at 16:25). It soon became evident that although he had accepted God’s forgiveness for the atrocities of his past life, the sorrow for the pain, disappointment, and grief he caused others remains. Several times in his message he was forced to pause as his voice broke and emotions — rare for anyone in prison — were battled.

“God has radically changed Richard,” Baker confirms. “His way of thinking has been transformed — he now exemplifies the eager student. And in living his faith, God has allowed him to continue to be an inmate worker in the Religious Activity Center — just where he wants to be.”

For the Global University commencement in Springfield, Weddle videoed a separate message (introduction starts at 58:50) from Shreves to be presented to those in attendance.

Yet, even though there is a level of trust that Shreves has earned, the life of an inmate is highly controlled. Weddle recalls how at the 2012 commencement when Shreves was honored for earning his AA, Shreves had remarked how his sister entered the RAC kitchen, which was marked “unauthorized area,” without permission — a definite red flag for any inmate. Requesting permission isn’t just polite; it’s required.

THE FUTURE

How does one plan for the future when, for now, “the future” is more than two decades away? Shreves isn’t sure what the future will hold — though there is hope that his time before potential parole will be reduced from the current 41 years.

Yet, whether he is granted an earlier release or not, Shreves is continuing to prepare himself for the ministry. He’s already begun working on his Master’s Degree in Bible and Theology, and his excellence is continuing.

“Richard is a critical thinker. His is willing to ask tough questions and search for answers,” states
Dr. Douglas Scott, who is professor of Bible and Theology and mentored Shreves in Graduate Research and Writing. “His papers, thus far, are not mere recitations of the Pentecostal dogma; they show a willingness to probe into the underlying presuppositions of the authors that he encounters.”

Scott also saw strong potential for Shreves as a future writer who could theologize from the perspective of a long-term prisoner. “This perspective remains hidden from most Christians and could serve a significant redemptive purpose among the incarcerated,” he says.

“When this all first started, being asked to be the commencement speaker, I just said, ‘God, this is your baby,’ because I’m a pretty private person,” Shreves says. “I just want to make sure to give Him all the credit that is due Him because it all is . . . there was a point in my life where I just as soon hang myself and be done with it. But I told God that I completely ruined my life, but from now on it’s Yours . . . it’s mind blowing to see where He’s taken me.”


Editor’s note: In the extended conversation opportunity with Richard graciously granted to me by Montana State Prison officials, the difference that consistent love and support by those from outside of the prison walls came up several times. Richard expressed (and was supported by Baker and Stefalo) how much difference his parents’ regular visits made as well as the investment by volunteers who work with the RAC, but then he shared this thought: “People who serve Christ should take the time to think about why Jesus says when you visit prisons, you visit Me. Prison is a place of despair . . . , but by showing up it says Jesus still loves you, despite what you’ve done.”

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