ANGOLA, La. (BP)–“Hate and indifference” are the only emotions Donald Biermann says he once knew.
The 54-year-old was “always coiled and ready to strike,” “permeated” with evil — and much like the possessed man whose encounter with Jesus delivered him from a legion of demons, as recorded in the Gospels.
“What I really wanted was to be left alone. I trusted no one and I tolerated no one,” said Biermann, an inmate at Angola, the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Now serving a life sentence for second degree murder, his fourth incarceration, Biermann also had a personal encounter with Jesus.
Biermann was among some 800 Angola inmates who attended a viewing of “A New Hope,” a new North American Mission Board documentary heralding God’s work at Angola through an extension center of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The documentary was featured on season two of NAMB’s “On Mission Xtra” television program, which aired earlier this year on FamilyNet.
Biermann is a 2005 graduate of the seminary’s undergraduate program at Angola and a missionary to others imprisoned at correctional institutions across Louisiana.
Since the NOBTS extension center opened in 1996, 147 former and current inmates have embraced a calling to the ministry and earned bachelor of arts in Christian ministry degrees. Currently, 120 inmates are enrolled, extension center director John Robson said.
“Seventy percent of our students became Christians after they came [to Angola],” Robson said.
The Bible college, as the Angola extension center also is called, has changed the prison’s atmosphere. In 1995, Angola reported 1,016 violent incidents, including assaults, murders, suicides and escapes. In 2008, there were only 376 incidences of violence, mostly inmate-on-inmate assaults without weapons, according to prison records.
“It’s bigger than any one of us,” Robson said of the center. “It’s not about us. It’s about God being allowed to come in here and do what He does best.”
Robson was one of several extension center professors, NOBTS officials, Southern Baptist Convention leaders and Angola staff members on hand for the Feb. 2 viewing.
Among them was NOBTS President Chuck Kelley, who described the incarcerated believers as “saints” and referenced 1 John 4:4, confirming all saints have God’s Spirit, which is greater than Satan’s.
“I guess we could translate 1 John 4:4 like this: ‘Who dat say they gonna beat those Saints?'” drawing roaring applause from inmates just days before the New Orleans Saints’ historic Super Bowl victory. “Do you know who taught me that? Not those football Saints, but those Angola saints.”
The New Hope documentary chronicles Angola warden Burl Cain’s work to reform the prison and its prisoners through the introduction of seminary training and its resultant effects.
When Congress discontinued the use of Pell Grants for higher education in prisons in 1993, such opportunities ended at Angola. In an effort to restore higher education there, in 1995 Cain asked the seminary to open an on-site college. The NOBTS administration embraced the idea.
“The potential of what could happen in humans’ lives” was Kelley’s motivation, seeing the rare opportunity for a seminary to educate prisoners who then can minister to fellow inmates, prison visitors and others.
“God reached down in the most obscure place and raised up diamonds,” Kelley said.
Inmates must have a high school diploma or GED, profess a ministry calling and receive Cain’s approval to enroll at Angola’s extension center, which has the same academic requirements as the seminary’s Leavell College in New Orleans.
Angola’s current population includes 70 NOBTS graduates. They lead congregations at the six interfaith chapels on the prison grounds, assist chaplains in ministry and, in a new program, serve as missionaries for three-month stints at other correctional facilities in the state.
Currently, 28 incarcerated graduates are ministering in seven state correctional centers and the State Police Barracks, according to Angola communications officer Gary Young.
Many graduates have been released, including a former inmate featured in the documentary, Clifford Jones, who now serves as assistant pastor at St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans and owns a small home remodeling business.
“The college has been a beacon light to me,” Jones said. “It has given me so much strength, and study habits [and] hermeneutics to understand and explain the Gospel.”
“The Bible college here is a miracle story,” said Robert Toney, a NAMB-endorsed chaplain who has served at Angola the past 10 years. “It has brought tremendous hope to the prison population. Inmates can graduate with a B.A. degree in religion, a legitimate degree. They can go to LSU or anywhere they want to go and build on that degree.
“But it wouldn’t have happened without Southern Baptists and the vision that Baptists had,” Toney said.
Encouraged by the success at Angola, NOBTS has opened extension centers at prisons in Mississippi and Georgia and is making plans to do the same in Florida and Alabama. NOBTS can open a prison extension center for as little as $60,000.
Robson said the work God is doing through graduates of the extension center began with persevering through a challenging beginning.
“The challenges were to convince the students, the prison population and the free people that it was a good and righteous thing. The value had to be proven,” Robson said. “We just let our men be our showcase.”
Extension center graduate Ron Hicks, a 39-year-old inmate who leads one of the Angola congregations, noted, “God has invaded the prison. He wants to invade every prison in the country, throughout the world.
“My hope is that this whole prison will be born again and that it will be permeated with the agape love of God, that it will definitely be evident to the world,” Hicks said.
Diana Chandler is a freelance writer in New Orleans. To view or download the documentary, “A New Hope,” visit the North American Mission Board’s www.omxtv.com website.