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Death Row inmates become missionary prayer warriors

ANGOLA, La. (BP)–Whenever Jack Tillery visits death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary, he heads for John’s solitary 6-by-9-foot cell.

Peering through the bars, he often finds John lying face down on the concrete floor, his head up under his bunk.

“Who you prayin’ for, John?” whispers Tillery, minister of college students and missions at First Baptist Church Moss Bluff in Lake Charles, La.

John’s face emerges from under the bunk with a broad grin.

“I’m prayin’ for the Sherpa, Jack,” he answers. “Prayin’ for the Sherpa!”

That would be the Sherpa people of Nepal, the Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India. Sherpa guides have long been renowned for their connection to Mount Everest and the climbers they help reach its world-topping summit. But the Sherpa themselves remain mostly unreached by the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps as many as 50 -– out of more than 100,000 -– of the overwhelmingly Buddhist Sherpa follow Jesus as Lord.

John may be on death row at “Angola,” as Louisiana’s maximum-security penitentiary is known. But he fervently wants to share eternal life with the Sherpa. He knows he’ll never lay eyes on them in this world. He’s looking forward to joining Sherpa worshipers one bright day at a summit that soars far higher than Everest: heaven.

Tillery helped connect John and other Christian inmates at Angola to the Sherpa. He began leading volunteer mission teams into the mountains of Nepal in the late 1990s -– about the same time he got involved in prison ministry at Angola.

In 1997, Tillery had taken a trip to Colorado’s high country. He suffered serious altitude sickness and later had a heart attack. While recovering from surgery, he read the bestselling book “Into Thin Air,” which recounts the deaths of several climbers in a harrowing accident on Mount Everest.

“They had high-altitude pulmonary edema, which is what I got in Colorado,” Tillery says. “I read about all these climbers and Nepal and Everest and just was intrigued. If somebody died on the mountain, whether climbers or Sherpa guides, there was just no hope. They had nothing to fall back on. God began to change my interest into a burden for the Sherpa people.”

He has since led multiple teams on prayer treks to the mountain villages of the Khumbu Sherpa (Everest soars above the Khumbu Valley in Nepal).

“Even after my heart surgery, we backpacked 160 miles and went to an altitude of almost 18,000 feet,” Tillery says.

His teams have made crucial contacts in villages -– opening the door to long-term ministry and church planting.

Back home, Tillery got involved at Angola through Louisiana Baptists’ annual spiritual revival at the penitentiary.

“I asked to be assigned to death row,” he recalls. “I went there and just connected to those guys in a way that I never dreamed I would. You shake a hand and you know that hand has most likely taken the life of someone else. But I tell people from my church unashamedly that some of my very best friends are inmates at Angola. God has done some phenomenal things in a lot of their lives and throughout the whole penitentiary.”

This isn’t “jailhouse religion.” These guys are serious believers -– and committed intercessors. Just check out the well-thumbed Sherpa prayer calendars hanging prominently on the walls of their cells.

Before Tillery leads a volunteer trip to Nepal, he takes a daily itinerary and photos of his mission team to Angola inmates. They pray daily, by name, for Tillery, his volunteers, Christian workers in Nepal and the Sherpa they are trying to reach. They also write letters of encouragement, which Tillery takes on trips to read to volunteers when the going gets tough in Nepal.

One of his most faithful letter writers is an inmate who landed at Angola after killing two people in an armed robbery.

“The Lord has captured his heart and he now has such a tender, sweet spirit,” Tillery says. “Before we go anywhere he is ready and committed to pray for us. It just intrigues me what God can do in the heart of a man.”

When Tillery and his church helped bring a Sherpa boy to the United States for life-saving surgery, inmate intercessors prayed for the whole process.

“I came back last time and reported to them that the little boy’s mother got saved and that we saw our first believers in some of the Sherpa villages up there, they just went nuts,” Tillery reports. “They were so excited to think, ‘I really made a difference on the other side of the world.’”

Recently, Tillery brought a friend with him to visit John and other prayer partners on death row. “Joshua” (name changed for security reasons) is a Southern Baptist worker with the International Mission Board. He and his wife, “Rebecca,” lead a mission team assigned to reach the Sherpa with the Good News of Jesus.

“When John found out we were working with the Sherpa, he said, ‘You just go do what you need to do. I got your back. You do the work and I’ll take care of everything else [through prayer],’” Joshua recounts, shaking his head in wonder.

“That’s a pretty awesome thing. You pray and you search for this kind of partnership. God was doing it at the prison, and we didn’t even know about it. We knew something was going on, but not like this. There’s about 90 guys on death row, and eight of them are fervently praying for the Sherpa and Nepal.”

One inmate sang a rap song for Joshua about God’s grace. Another young convict gave him two cross-shaped bookmarks woven from cloth.

“I want you to have one and I want you to take one to the Sherpa guy that I’ve been praying for by name,” the convict told Joshua. “Every time you see it, know that you’re being prayed for.”

During a worship service at the prison, Joshua and Rebecca spotted another inmate lying flat on the floor.

“When he stood up there was this huge puddle where he had been lying there crying and praying,” Rebecca says. “I had not seen that in such a long time. I thought, ‘This man has committed serious crimes. He’s in here for life. He is condemned in our justice system, yet he is forgiven.’

“We were so humbled that these men, most of whom will never be paroled, were so openly praising and worshiping our Lord in spite of their circumstances. It was a picture of the beauty of the church and the freedom we have in Christ, whether or not we have freedom physically.”

Who turned a maximum-security penitentiary once known as the “bloodiest prison in America” into a place of prayer and worship?

The short answer: Warden Burl Cain. He arrived in 1995 to oversee more than 5,000 inmates living behind barbed wire on the 18,000-acre network of prison camps. The penitentiary was ravaged by violence, rape and murder as hardened, hopeless “lifers” turned on each other.

Cain, a committed Christian, rejected the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy and transformed the prison into a community designed for moral and spiritual renewal. Angola now offers numerous opportunities for finding hope and purpose –- including a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary extension program that has graduated more than 30 inmates. “Cain’s Redemption,” a book about the warden’s accomplishment by journalist and attorney Dennis Shere, was published last year by Northfield Publishing.

Not everyone at Angola is a believer. The prison holds plenty of hard men doing hard time for their crimes. Six out of 10 Angola inmates are serving life sentences. But inmate chaplains are the first guys new convicts see when they are driven through the gate on the penitentiary bus.

The chaplains tell them about the hope available at Angola -– if they want it.

“Warden Cain is passionate about doing things that instill hope,” Tillery says. “They actually send some of the inmates as ‘missionaries’ to other state institutions to serve as chaplains. These are some neat things Warden Cain has done to give these men a sense of purpose in their lives.

“That’s his goal, and that’s our goal –- to instill into them that they can have a purpose right there.”

If the answers to prayer for the Sherpa people of Nepal are any indication, it’s working.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges