ANGOLA, La. (BP) — It may be the first time a local Baptist association has accepted a prison church into its fellowship.

Washington Baptist Association now counts among its members Grace Baptist Church of the Main Camp in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The association encompasses 38 churches in Washington and St. Tammany parishes.

Grace Baptist is five years old and is the only Southern Baptist church among the prison’s 28 inmate-led churches. Its 65 or so members meet five times a week in the Main Camp’s Education Center and twice a month in the Main Camp’s Tudy Chapel.

The church is led by inmate pastor Paul Will, 42, a 2007 graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension program at Angola. Like most of the men at Angola, Will is serving a life sentence.

Andrew Voss, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Franklinton where Will was ordained last year, facilitated the Washington association’s vote during its Oct. 5 annual meeting at Franklinton’s First Baptist Church.

“To our knowledge this is the very first, fully recognized Southern Baptist church … located inside a penitentiary,” said Voss, who also is an NOBTS adjunct professor. “The vote was unanimous and there was an overwhelming eruption of applause after the vote was taken.”

The process started about a year ago “as a way to further validate what God is doing there,” Voss said, “not only through the seminary but through the churches because these inmate pastors are the ones who are on the front lines touching these guys’ lives and their families back in their communities.”

Paul Will, Grace Baptist’s pastor, wrote in a statement that “God has allowed, through His providence, an incredible history to unfold here at Angola, a history that only God could have orchestrated for no man could have planned all that has transpired.”

Will credits Warden Burl Cain for bringing the New Orleans Seminary to Angola 20 years ago and creating the prison’s innovative re-entry programs.

“The Scripture has proved to be true,” Will wrote about Ephesians 3:20-21. “‘Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask, or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, amen.'”

“If I were to sum up my feelings concerning this event I would have to say that I’m overwhelmed and humbled by the fact that God has chosen to love and use the most broken of souls, in the most unlikely of circumstances to do such a marvelous work,” Will wrote.

NOBTS President Chuck Kelley, who was a featured speaker for the associational meeting, tweeted, “I’m at Washington Baptist Association that just accepted a church started at Angola prison by our inmate students as a member. Wow! What a God — Our God is so great!”

In a later phone interview, Kelley said, “To my knowledge I don’t know of any other association that has accepted as a member church a church composed of inmates inside a prison, so it was a very historic night, very wonderful night!”

Bill Sumners, director of the SBC Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, was reluctant to declare it as a historical “first.” But after he searched the convention’s databases he concluded, “As far as we know this has not happened before.”

Angola chaplains Rick Sharkey and Robert Toney also affirmed the Washington association embrace of Grace Baptist.

“I think it’s an awesome thing,” Sharkey said. “It’s the Kingdom of God expanding beyond the walls of a prison.”

“The Louisiana Baptists just love the inmates,” Toney said. “For that we are forever grateful.”

The Washington Baptist Association is one of three parts of the 91-church Baptist Associations of Southeast Louisiana, along with the William Wallace Baptist Association with 24 churches and Two Rivers Baptist Association, 29 churches.

Stan Statham, the Southeast association’s director of missions, said Angola prison is located in the William Wallace Association in West Feliciana Parish but because Voss and other local men who regularly visit Angola are in the Washington association, they were the logical group to accept the prison church.

“We hope that a lot of our churches will journey over there and fellowship with them because they obviously can’t come to us,” Statham said.

“We’re pretty excited about it — we think it’s a great step in how the Lord is working,” he added. “We know that a lot of those men won’t ever be released — but we pray that His Kingdom will go forward even there. He came to save and we pray those guys will reach other inmates with the Gospel.”