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16 prisoners earn degrees from New Orleans Seminary

ANGOLA, La. (BP)–Sixteen men incarcerated at Louisiana
State Penitentiary in Angola stepped forward to do something
no other prisoner likely has ever done — receive a degree
from an accredited theological institution, New Orleans
Baptist Theological Seminary.
The commencement service Jan. 8 also was a first for
New Orleans Seminary, one of six seminaries of the Southern
Baptist Convention, in that the 16 students who completed
the associate in pastoral ministries degree were the first
group to graduate from the seminary’s two-year-old extension
center at the penitentiary.
“There is no life God cannot redeem,” NOBTS President
Chuck Kelley told the graduates, family members and prison
officials attending the graduation ceremony, held within the
prison’s multiple locked gates, razor-wire fences and iron
As tears of joy came down the faces of the prisoners
and their families during the commencement service, Kelley
declared the day’s events to be a time of celebration and
redemption for the graduates.
“God is willing to exchange our evil for his good,”
Kelley said.
Referring to the biblical account of Joseph and his
brothers, Kelley said when circumstances seem hopeless,
“never give up because God has something better for you.”
“Today we celebrate because you have earned a degree.
But all of you also have received something you did not earn
— redemption,” Kelley said. “God redeems our sin and
exchanges it for righteousness.”
The Angola extension center, one of NOBTS’ 14
extension center campuses across the Southeast, now has a
capacity of 50 students, with many more on a waiting list.
The center was started in 1995 at the invitation of prison
warden Burl Cain after hundreds of prisoners had completed
the “Experiencing God” discipleship study and wanted more
education to prepare for ministry — whether inside the
prison or out. Currently nearly 20 congregations are
functioning inside the prison.
“You could not go to seminary,” Kelley said in his
sermon. “So God brought the seminary to you.
“The work does not end here. You have an opportunity
to be ministers of God’s redemption.”
For these ministers, the mission field will be on the
grounds of the vast 18,000-acre prison farm because most of
the men are serving life prison terms.
Angola is home to 5,000 maximum-security adult male
inmates. Of this number, 84 are violent offenders —
convicted of murder, aggravated rape or armed robbery.
Eighty-three percent of the inmates will never be released
from prison.
With these statistics, Warden Cain said hope is
essential to reach the men for Christ. Many ministers —
such as the ones in the NOBTS associate degree program —
are needed to reach their fellow inmates.
“God meant for you to be here today,” Cain said during
the service. “Set the right standard. Be God’s torchbearer.
Keep the faith and set an example for the other incarcerated
The opening of the seminary extension center has
provided inmates the opportunity not only to participate in
higher education but also to become better equipped for
pastoral ministry. Warden Cain’s belief that “true
rehabilitation comes from within an individual” was a strong
force behind the extension center’s opening on Aug. 19,
“Even if I were an atheist, I would want a strong
religious program in prison,” Cain said.
“During the first six months of my assignment at
Louisiana State Penitentiary, I experienced three suicides,
one murder and relatively high violence.
“After implementing a strong religious program, of
which (New Orleans Seminary) is a part, there have been no
inmate deaths due to violence. Statistics prove that
religious programs reduce violence.”
In order to enroll in the seminary program, inmates
must have demonstrated a level of commitment within one of
the prison congregations.
Graduates Wilfred Cain and Willie Thomas echoed the
thoughts of others when they said the commencement service
was, for many of the men, one of their very few successful
experiences following years of bad choices and unsuccessful
attempts to do something positive.
“I am grateful for those who have helped make this
possible,” Thomas said. “This is a present for my
grandchildren because I want to set the right example for
As the men walked across the platform to receive their
diplomas, their classmates were there to congratulate them
on their achievement, something Cain feels will help
motivate them to complete the program.
“This is not just a certificate, but a goal-setter, a
goal which other prisoners can work toward,” Cain said.
“God provided,” was how student Leander Gallet chose
to express his feelings about NOBTS’ degree program
available at the prison. “This is a reality because of God’s
hand and not man, and because God has allowed me to be in
this program, he has something for me to do with my life.”
As occurred during the Dec. 19 commencement on the
main campus, each graduate received a leather New American
Standard Bible, donated by the Lockman Foundation, as well
as a second Bible, donated by the Baptist Book Store located
on the seminary campus, both presented by Jimmy W. Dukes,
NOBTS dean of the undergraduate faculty and dean of the
extension center system.
Dukes, who helped steer the program from its
inception, told the graduates to remember “this happened
because God wanted it to happen.”
Following the service, Dukes said, “Many of these men
have never finished anything in their lives, but now they
are strengthened because they have God’s call on their
lives. They now have purpose.”
After receiving his degree, one of the graduates
tearfully told Dukes, “Finally, I know what God wants me to
do with my life.”

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