PARCHMAN, Miss. (BP)–In some ways, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center graduation May 20 mirrored any other seminary graduation ceremony.
The service included singing, prayers, a sermon and the recognition of God-called ministers. Proud families and friends were in attendance to share in the joyous occasion. The 28 men receiving undergraduate degrees even wore traditional black graduation caps and gowns. But this was no ordinary graduation service. And these were not ordinary graduates.
This graduation, held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., took place under the watchful eyes of numerous prison guards. Instead of a beautiful chapel, the setting was the prison’s stark visitor’s center. Striped prison pants were visible below the hem of each robe. Nineteen of the graduates are serving sentences of 25 years or more; 13 of those have life sentences.
Even though many of the graduates will never experience a life outside the walls of Parchman, they each expressed joy and hope. As trained ministers, the inmates are better equipped to reach their mission field — Parchman prison.
One smiling graduate, Tommy Smith, said he has found new purpose in helping others during his time as a student. In his ministry to others, Smith himself has been changed.
“Ministering to other people is something that brings out the best in me,” Smith said. “That’s something I didn’t understand until God got a hold of me and changed my life.”
Smith said the seminary training program has not only given him the skills he needs to minister to others, it also has provided opportunities to share his faith.
In his charge to the graduates, Chuck Kelley, the seminary’s president noted that the ceremony did not signify an end or a completion, but a commencement, a beginning.
“It is not just what you have finished that we are recognizing, it’s what you are about to do and what lies ahead that has such great significance,” Kelley said.
Drawing from 1 Corinthians 1, Kelley noted that God often calls unlikely ministers. When God works through these unlikely people, He receives all the glory, Kelley said.
“The Bible tells us the ones God loves using most are the weak and the broken and the defeated,” Kelley said. “Because when God does something through them, everybody knows it is God is doing it.”
Kelley said the world has every reason to forget or even fear the graduating class at Parchman. But, he said, God is preparing do mighty things inside the prison through the graduates.
Using a glove, Kelley illustrated how God works through the weak and unlikely to accomplish His purposes. A glove can do nothing on its own, Kelley said. It is useless without a hand. On a hand, though, the glove can do many things.
“It’s not the glove, it is the hand inside,” Kelley said. “What you are as a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ is a glove on the hand of God.”
Kelley said with their own hands they can break someone’s life and smother hope, but as a glove on God’s hand they can bring restoration and become bearers of hope.
“Today marks the day to celebrate what you have learned and how you have grown,” Kelley said. “But more importantly, today marks the day God takes your glove off the shelf … so that He might make a difference.”
The program at Parchman is modeled after a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. The Angola extension started 13 years ago when Warden Burl Cain approached the seminary about the need for educational opportunities at the prison.
NOBTS began by offering a nationally-accredited associate degree in ministry in 1995. The program was expanded to include an accredited bachelor’s degree in 1997. Since the start of the program, Angola has seen a significant drop in violence.
Cain served as the guest speaker for the commencement service at Parchman. He offered straight talk to the graduates, challenging them to “be humble and don’t stumble.”
“Everybody is watching you,” Cain said. “You’ve got to do the right thing. You can’t fail. Be a man and stand tall for God.”
Cain challenged the men to be trustworthy and earn the respect of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. When that respect is earned, Cain said, the inmates will find greater opportunity to minister throughout the prison.
Much of the funding for the Parchman extension program comes from the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and its churches. Jim Futral, executive director of the MBCB, told the graduates that they have been a blessing to Mississippi Baptists.
“It is the cross of Jesus that brings us together,” Futral said. “As I visit with you, I hear that in your voice and I see it in your faces, and I thank God that you and I have had the privilege of coming to the cross together. Thank God for what has happened in your lives.”
Chris Buckhalter is one of the program’s success stories. Paroled in late 2008, the former standout running back at the University of Southern Mississippi returned to the prison to participate in the commencement service with the men that he had learned alongside. Buckhalter said he wasn’t apprehensive or nervous about coming back to Parchman for the graduation, but he knew the experience would be emotional.
One by one, the members of the graduating class greeted Buckhalter when he walked through the door. He was clearly moved by the greeting he received.
After his release, Buckhalter began speaking to high school and church groups about making right choices. He said his time as a student in the seminary’s Parchman extension was an “awesome experience.”
“It makes a change in so many people’s lives,” Buckhalter said. “I get to do so much now. People realize that truly my life has changed. That’s why I came back from the free world to graduate with my class.”
Johnny Bley, director of the seminary’s Parchman extension, said graduates of the program are making an impact on the prison by serving as chaplains’ assistants and Bible study teachers. The graduates are leading a variety of ministry and educational activities including “Experiencing God” groups and GED training groups. Bley said others are even teaching basic literacy to their fellow inmates.
“To see the accomplishment and the hard work that they have put in, it just means the world to me,” Bley said of the current class. “To see the joy and the diligence that they have put forth, it’s very rewarding.”
Gary D. Myers writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.