ANGOLA, La. (BP)–The inmate, seeing a visitor’s Southern Baptist nametag, said, “Thank you, thank you, please tell Southern Baptists thank you.
“When I see the hands of men raised in worship, I know these are the same hands that held a rape victim, the same hands that held stolen goods, the same hands that held the murderous gun,” the inmate continued.
“Now these are empty hands — holy hands lifted in praise to God. We could not experience that miracle of hope without the Southern Baptist seminary in New Orleans. Thank you,” said the inmate, a 2005 graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s course of study at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The occasion was a Pastor’s Appreciation Day at Angola. More than 400 pastors from across the state gathered at the infamous penitentiary where inmates, chaplains and administrators expressed appreciation for churches and individual Christians who have been used of God to help facilitate a spiritual transformation at Angola.
Babby Mason, a recording artist from Atlanta, and Jim Cymbala, senior pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, were special guests for the March 25 event. This was not the first time Cymbala had visited Angola, but his fourth. “Other than my church,” Cymbala said, “I’d rather be here than any other place in the world because of how real these brothers are in the Lord.”
Part of the program included the premiere of a new DVD, “The Miracle of Hope,” featuring the Brooklyn Tabernacle singers and testimonies by several Angola inmates who have experienced the life-changing transformation of Christ.
An estimated 1,200 inmates have expressed newfound faith in Christ at Angola. The result is an amazing transformation has occurred at the geographically isolated 18,000-acre facility on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The name Angola originated from the Angolan slaves who worked the land in the early 1800s. In the mid-1970s, the prison had the reputation for being the bloodiest prison in the world. This was before Burl Cain became warden.
Cain took note of the 1,800 guards and the 3,200 lifers at Angola: One of every two inmates has a life sentence; someone is in a grave because of them.
“If you listen carefully to the men today, you can hear their humility,” Gibbie McMillan, men’s ministry and volunteer mobilization strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said of the inmates who have turned to Christ.
“They committed a crime, and crime always has a victim,” McMillan said. “The punishment from the state these men receive will never undo the offense. However, we must also come to the place where we can say the words of Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them.’ At the same time, we must remember how Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'”
Cain immediately began an “Experiencing God” Bible study group, which drew 80 inmates. The next study drew 200. In 1999, New Orleans Seminary opened an extension center at Angola under the direction through which inmates could earn an accredited associate bachelor of arts in Christian ministry.
As the men became graduates of New Orleans, Cain began to see a new trend. Violence was down and morality was up.
“The chain gang became the change gang for God,” Cain said. A number of the graduates have become pastors of prison congregations who worship, evangelize and lead Bible studies with other inmates. In 2005, Angola grads provided pastoral support for inmates at other incarceration facilities following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The Louisiana pastors participating in the March 25 appreciation day knew they were in a different kind of meeting when one of the inmate pastors was asked to pray. He offered thanksgiving to God for Warden Cain and his family. He expressed thanks to God for Cain’s vision for the spiritual welfare of Angola, “once a place of blood and now covered by the blood of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.”
Another inmate pastor shared his testimony. “We are humbled by your presence,” the man, who still bears 666 tattoos on his chest from his days as a Satan worshipper, told the visiting pastors. “We’ve heard about great meetings in places like Atlanta and Dallas but this is Angola. Thank you for making this possible.”
When Jim Rentz, one of Angola’s chaplains, introduced Cain to speak to the visitors, he described the warden as “a visionary like no one else. He is so out of the box he doesn’t even know where the box is.”
Cain told how Angola is the only prison in the United States with a church in the middle of its facilities. (All churches built in the Louisiana penitentiary system are built via private funding.) Cain also said Angola has the lowest level of violence of any state penitentiary in the nation.
Cain then voiced concern for the men who have finished their debt to society and are released for re-entry into society. Currently, when inmates have served their time, they are given a $10 state check and a one-way bus ticket to any city in Louisiana. Cain added that it costs $3 to cash the $10 check, thus leaving the ex-con only $7.
Cain said he wants churches to help by adopting inmates while they are still incarcerated and then to follow through with them and their families.
Cymbala challenged the pastors by asking, “How is it that so little of Jesus is seen in our culture? How did we get so off track?” Using the Mark 3 account of the calling of the disciples, Cymbala said part of the answer to the questions rests with pastors neglecting their first calling of spending time with Jesus. “The only way we can love people the way God wants us to love people is to spend time with Him,” Cymbala said.
Wayne Jenkins, the Louisiana convention’s evangelism/church growth director, told Baptist Press, “Part of the impact for Christ at Angola was made possible by Louisiana Southern Baptist churches through their gifts to the Cooperative Program and the Georgia Barnette State Missions Offering.
“Many of our Louisiana Baptist churches join with other churches to provide faculty, facilities and resources for Angola and other facilities. We have an opportunity to continue to step up and make a difference in the lives of these inmates and their families,” Jenkins said.
“If you want to see the power of the Gospel to transform human lives, visit Angola,” said Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Seminary. “Almost 200 men have completed the training process for ministry … [and] upon completion each one is given a ministry assignment in the prison. Their influence, under the power of the Holy Spirit, has been leaven in the lump, affecting the whole prison. I think the daily involvement in ministry for every student is the key. This is not a program of learning. It is a program of learning and doing. To see the result makes you want to fall on your face before God and praise Him for being a redeemer with the power to take any life and make it different.”
John L. Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention. For additional information on how to help with ministries at Angola or to participate in a May 16-17 evangelistic crusade at the penitentiary, e-mail [email protected] or call 318-448-3402.