News Articles

‘Church within prison walls’ focus of student-faculty ministry

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–“I was in prison, and you came to me.”
Jesus’ words to his disciples are taken to heart by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student Barbara Wilson and professor Chuck Lawless. For them, ministering to the “church within the prison walls” is a tangible way Christians can follow his teaching.
“I really believe that the God I serve is powerful enough to change lives, even in a prison. And I believe if I’m faithful and others are faithful in reaching out and meeting the needs that are there, God will honor that,” said Wilson, a first-year master of divinity student and former federal law enforcement officer.
“I couldn’t get away from Jesus’ words,” Lawless added. He is assistant professor of evangelism and church growth in Southern’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. “As much as I wanted to ignore that text … I knew I had to do it.”
Southern students and faculty participate in a number of ministries to the nearly 1,100 men at Luther Luckett Corrections Complex in LaGrange, Ky., about 30 miles north of Louisville. Although designated a medium-security prison, Luckett has the highest percentage of violent offenders of any prison in the state, said chief chaplain Suzanne McElwain.
“This is about the last place I ever thought God would call me,” said McElwain, who graduated from Southern in 1986 with a master of divinity in Christian education degree and previously served as executive director of the Kentucky Alliance for the Mentally Ill and director of shelter ministries at Wayside Christian Mission, a Louisville homeless ministry.
With more than 120 worship services every month — up from 15 per month four years ago when she started — McElwain said she is seeing a revival among the inmates at Luckett. Sunday worship services had to be moved to the gym to accommodate the 300-plus inmates who regularly attend.
“I’ve seen men who went in and out of the ‘hole’ all the time who haven’t been to the ‘hole’ for a long time,” McElwain said, referring to the prison within the prison for recalcitrant inmates.
“Preacher Mike” Phillips is an inmate who is helping lead the revival at Luckett. The multiple violent offender who has been incarcerated for 30 years, the last 12 at Luckett, made a profession of faith 14 years ago. Every Monday and Tuesday, Phillips leads worship services which about 100 inmates attend. “God blesses every time we have a service,” Phillips said in an interview at the prison.
Phillips confesses that sometimes he feels like the prophet Jeremiah: “I want to throw in the towel and give up. But when I see these guys on the floor praying or crying their hearts out … God gives me this goal, ‘Go on!'”
Having been ordained to the ministry, Phillips hopes to be paroled next year and continue ministering to prisoners. Choking back tears, Preacher Mike said, “Somebody’s got to reach them. Somebody’s got to go out there and win them to Jesus. Fortunately, God’s called me. It’s a battle, but I keep holding on to God.”
Phillips was among the team of inmates who assisted in a March 29 worship service which featured a sermon by Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. Nachel Wilkins, who directs prison and nursing home ministries for Highview Baptist Church, coordinates a weekly worship service at Luckett. Mohler was joined by a worship team from Highview, his home church. Southern’s Danny Akin, dean of the school of theology, and preaching professor Hershael York also have preached for Wilkins.
Preaching from Luke 15 which records Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son, Mohler told the inmates the stories illustrate “we’re all sinners. We need to confess that all of us are lost,” contrary to the Pharisees who thought they were not sinners.
“The story about the prodigal son is not a story about some people. It’s a story about all of us, because every one of us” is like the son, Mohler explained.
“The world is not divided between sinners and non-sinners. The world of sinners is divided between sinners who are lost in their sin and sinners who are saved by grace,” Mohler said. Many inmates answered back by declaring, “Amen!”
Following the service, about 50 men knelt on the gym floor with Mohler as he prayed for their spiritual walk with the Lord.
Some of the men had considered skipping Mohler’s sermon, McElwain reported. His appearance last year on a Kentucky public television program in support of the morality of capital punishment was the cause of their skepticism, she noted.
But most were persuaded to hear Mohler when McElwain reminded them that he was willing to worship with them in contrast to liberal religious groups who oppose the death penalty, but refuse to do ministry at the prison. “I can’t get them in here,” she noted.
In addition to the regular worship services, Highview’s Wilkins started seminary extension classes for the inmates, with Lawless teaching the first class, “How to understand the Bible,” to 48 eager students. Six classes have been held in the year and half since they were started and 61 students are currently enrolled, Wilkins reported.
The professor was impressed with his students.
“I found the guys there very receptive, very hungry for the gospel, who were thorough students. They did the best work they could do,” Lawless said. “It was very encouraging and fun to be out there with them.”
For someone who initially didn’t think he had time to teach the class, Lawless is now looking forward to his next teaching assignment at Luckett this summer.
Lawless added that the ministry at Luckett “helped me keep my feet in the real world,” something he continually hammers home with seminarians. Being at Luckett “reminded me that we are here to win a hurting world … that what’s outside the seminary walls is a different world that we need to reach and help people to avoid winding-up in prison, as well as ministering once they are there.”
The inmates are anxious for Lawless to teach again, Wilkins said. “Chuck did a great job. The men just loved him,” he said. Wilkins also appreciates the students from Southern who assist him at Luckett. “I could not do what I’m doing without them. They’re really a big help to us,” he noted.
Wilkins’ own ministry at Luckett is deeply appreciated by chaplain McElwain. “Nachel and Highview Baptist Church are a gift from God,” she said. McElwain also values the ministry of students from Southern.
“It’s so important to have Southern students here,” she said. As Baptists, “we have something that these men need — the transformation of Jesus Christ. There is no rehabilitation in corrections without that.” Although teaching inmates vocational skills is important, McElwain said, “unless you get their spiritual life together, it’s not going to change anything.”
Barbara Wilson, a student focusing on pastoral counseling, works as a student chaplain as part of her required clinical pastoral education requirements. Beyond the academic requirement, Wilson sees prison ministry as an opportunity to minister to men who are sincerely attempting to follow Christ.
A native of Chicago, Wilson draws on her 10 years of experience as a federal law enforcement officer in her prison ministry. “I have had a unique opportunity to see the criminal justice system as a whole and have firsthand experience working here,” Wilson noted.
Before enrolling at Southern Seminary, Wilson served in three positions in the federal prison system, including more than three years as an investigator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and five years as a probation and parole officer. While serving in those two positions based in Chicago, she also volunteered in a prison where she led a Bible study for women.
“Although I never thought I would be back working, even in ministry, in the prison system, that’s one of the places God has called me,” Wilson said. “My interest is how do I as a minister educate local churches about the realities of prison life and integrate in that our obligation to not only evangelize, but disciple the church within the prison walls.”
Wilson is careful to not think too highly of herself in relation to the prisoners she ministers to at Luckett. Asserting that God is faithful, Wilson noted, “If he can transform me and is still doing that within me, he can do that with all of us, and certainly those who are in prison.”

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith
  • James A. Smith, Sr.
  • Sr.