Today the 135th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church honored Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, dean of faculty at North Park Theological Seminary, with the 2021 Irving C. Lambert Award for educational innovation and her commitment to growing a “beloved community” that centers marginalized people.
The award is given to a member of an Evangelical Covenant Church who exemplifies a commitment to urban or ethnic ministry. Love Mercy Do Justice and the Mosaic Commission choose the recipient. It was presented virtually during the online meeting.
Clifton-Soderstrom, an ordained minister and member of North Park Covenant Church, has taught theology and ethics at the seminary since 2002. She was appointed dean in 2020 and serves as director of the School of Restorative Arts (SRA), an initiative she conceived during a sabbatical when she researched how theological education could be introduced into the prison system. Alongside colleagues Deborah Penny and Lance Davis, Clifton-Soderstrom created a field education course for the men. “Working under the leadership of Deborah and Lance was critical for my formation,” she said.
The school enables people who are incarcerated to earn a master’s degree while studying alongside non-incarcerated students who travel to Stateville Correctional Center to take classes. The program includes biblical studies, theology, and ministries of restoration through personal healing and community. SRA has attracted attention from other higher-education institutions and recently was featured in the Washington Post.
“She deserves this award. She goes beyond what she needs to do as a professor,” said Michael Pizarro, an SRA student who was granted early release from Stateville in April after Clifton-Soderstrom and other SRA leaders testified on his behalf at a sentence modification hearing. “She is someone you can talk to. She acts as an advocate for justice. She was instrumental in helping me attain my freedom.”
The certificate presented Clifton-Soderstrom quotes German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, ‘The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.’ Michelle doesn’t love the idea of community or people in general; she loves the particular people around her in all their particularity and in concrete, everyday ways. Michelle exemplifies cultural humility in her commitment to learn and grow within real community. She is self-reflective and receptive to the input of others; she empowers instead of competes.”
That was evident in a 2016 article she wrote for the Companion, in which she recalled ending class in Stateville with the benediction, “Go in peace.” One of the students replied, “Actually, you all get to go. We have to stay.” Although she had conceived the program, that moment was a significant marker.
“It was a moment of marking the divided space between us—a division that goes against the Beatitudes,” she confessed. “The Beatitudes are not about being singularly virtuous. Rather, they call us to get into one another’s space and occupy that space in ways that render us poor, meek, mournful, and merciful. The Beatitudes are all about relational solidarity.”
“I’m deeply grateful that that LMDJ and the Mosaic Commission would recognize me at this time, and it inspires me,” Clifton-Soderstrom said in an interview. “It gives me a renewed sense that this work is important, and it is meaningful. It’s wonderful to be recognized, and I’m happy to celebrate for a minute—and then get back to work and keep moving in our educational work, our antiracist work, and our discipleship work.”
Clifton-Soderstrom was notified during a staff retreat that she had been chosen for the award. Suddenly several incarcerated students appeared on Zoom to witness the event, and one shared about the importance of her work.
“I’m not a crier, but I did get a little weepy,” she said.
Editors’ note: Greg Yee, superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference was honored with the 2020 Irving Lambert award in a virtual ceremony last summer. To read the story, go here.