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Female prisoners learn ministry through seminary’s landmark program

ST. GABRIEL, La. (BP)–The chapel at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women brimmed with hope as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated the launch of a new training program. Tears of joy and anticipation flowed freely.

The emotional highlight of the launch celebration came when the 20 female inmates selected for the program led the small crowd in the praise song “Give Us Clean Hands.” The lyrics, which speak of turning to God in repentance, set the tone for the dedication event.

The gray hairs of some program participants bear witness to an inescapable fact — many of these women are serving long prison terms. Sixteen are serving life sentences. The prison, located in St. Gabriel, La., houses nearly 1,100 inmates, and as the state’s only women’s facility, is home to minimum, medium and maximum custody offenders. The average maximum sentence for women entering the prison is more than 20 years. In the midst of these hard realities, though, the program is offering this group of women a new reason to hope.

The historic initiative at the prison — also known as LCIW — marks the seminary’s first training efforts for female offenders. It is also the first program of its kind in a women’s prison. While the LCIW program will begin by offering an 18-hour Christian ministry certificate for women, seminary officials hope eventually to gain approval to offer accredited undergraduate degrees at the prison.

The courses at LCIW will be taught by women, including Kristi Miller and Debi Sharkey, who are both recent doctoral graduates of New Orleans Seminary. Miller, who earned her doctor of philosophy degree in December, will serve as the program’s director.

Since 1995, New Orleans Seminary has led a successful ministry-training program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. Burl Cain, warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, often has credited the program for helping reduce violence and changing the culture at Angola. The accredited undergraduate program at Angola has garnered national attention and led to the creation of similar programs at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., and the Phillips State Prison near Buford, Ga.

At Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, Warden Jim Rogers opened the launch celebration Jan. 12 by commending the seminary for the hard work and perseverance needed to start the program. He also thanked the leaders at the Louisiana Department of Corrections for being “open-minded” and willing to try new things. Rogers closed his remarks by sharing the hope he has for this first class of students.

“We have a great bunch of students to start this program,” Rogers said. “They need to be proud of the fact that they are the first students in the country to do this. These students have the desire to be servants, to be helpers and examples of godly living to all the offenders on the compound.”

Officials from New Orleans Seminary, Louisiana Baptist Convention and the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge also greeted the inmates with words of encouragement. The three Southern Baptist groups, along with individual churches throughout the state, will partner to support the program. Funding so far has been raised privately.

New Orleans Seminary President Chuck Kelley spoke to the students about God’s unique timing in the launch of the program.

“This is a moment in the fullness of time when God has prepared exactly the right students to be a part of this,” Kelley said. “What He has been doing in your hearts and lives is all in preparation for you to be here.”

The transformation that takes place in programs like the one at LCIW is a great testimony to the church, Kelley said. No sin or situation can take a person beyond God’s ability to save.

“The grace and the mercy and the hope of God is freely available to all who call on Him and it is sufficient for every need,” Kelley said. “You are becoming a living illustration of that truth.”

Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director David Hankins greeted the women on behalf of the Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana. Recalling the words of Paul in the letter to the Philippians, Hankins said God will use the work at LCIW to advance His Kingdom.

“God is going to use you and this circumstance to cut a path of progress for the Gospel,” Hankins. “We’re glad to be a part of it. We’re going to continue to pray and cooperate and give. Then we will watch and wait to hear the good news of how the Gospel is being advanced through you.”

Cain, the Angola warden, offered the women straight talk and words of caution. He warned that they would face trials and persecution for following God’s path. Cain urged them to persevere and avoid any hint of impropriety.

“You have to set the example in this prison. Your light has to shine. You can’t let it dim,” Cain said. “You have to be humble and not stumble because the whole country is looking at you.”

Courses for the certificate program began Jan. 17. Plans are underway for a graduation celebration at LCIW in December.
Gary D. Myers is the director of public relations for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (www.nobts.edu).