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FIRST-PERSON: Prisoners, yet free

ROSHARON, Texas (BP) — Clang, clang, clang, clang — the series of four gates closed, separating me from the free world as I was searched and ushered into the maximum security prison.

The contrast was instantly striking. The blue sky and slight breeze outside were replaced with the dark, humid and warm prison. A ringing bell that sounds seven times a day to signal the counting of the inmates replaced chirping birds and the background noise of life. Individualism was immediately replaced by conformity. There I stood on the cold concrete floor, under the ever-watchful eye of guards and the sometimes curious and most of the time stoic eyes of inmates. I was no longer “me”; I was a last name and an eight-digit number. It was palpable that I was no longer in the free world.

What was my offense to warrant standing in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facility? Nothing. I was in prison voluntarily — there to celebrate the (May 9th) graduation of 33 offenders receiving their bachelor of science in biblical studies through Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Darrington prison extension campus.

The Darrington Unit houses up to 1,600 hardened male offenders. Many of the offenders are “lifers.” At the invitation of the state of Texas, Southwestern Seminary created an accredited undergraduate program in the Darrington Unit in an effort to change the culture of the prison, modeling it after a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

After four years of completing the 125-credit hour degree, the first class of students was graduating in front of their families, Southwestern Seminary faculty, the freshman through junior class of offenders in the seminary program, and other guests. It was a history-making moment in the state of Texas, for Southwestern Seminary, and in the lives of the graduates.

During the two-hour graduation ceremony, I watched the graduates’ faces — young, old, African-American, Caucasian and Hispanic. Caps and gowns covered their white prison uniforms. For a moment, they looked distinct from the conformism of the prison’s population of offenders. They intently absorbed the entire ceremony and hung on the words of each speaker. They were proud and joyful, not hopeless and angry. They did not fidget, check their watches, or mentally check out and think about where they were going for lunch following graduation. They do not have the luxury. They are not in the free world.

I sat there during the ceremony and pondered the striking dichotomy. Here, sitting in front of me, were offenders, locked in prison, surrounded by guards, and yet they were free. They were free from sin, having experienced forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ. Yes, they had to serve out the consequence of past sin, but they were doing so as free men. In contrast, outside of prison are 7 billion people who are free but are prisoners to sin. Goethe stated, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than these who falsely believe they are free.” The world as a whole has not accepted the truths of Romans 6:14 and 1 John 1:8-9. The 33 graduating inmates have. Today I was reminded of the importance of believers sharing the Gospel, to show people enslaved by sin how they can be set free.

Clang, clang, clang, clang — the series of four gates closed separating me from the offenders as I stepped back into the free world. I was “me” again, no longer just Patrick and an identification number. I left the Darrington Unit with a myriad of emotions:

— Joy for the offenders who accepted salvation, became equipped with theological education, and will be transferred as field ministers to other TDCJ correctional facilities to actively become salt and light.

— Proud of the Southwestern faculty, staff and ministry partners who sacrificially invested in these men, embracing Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18 — “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.”

— Thankful for my own salvation as I proclaim, “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me. And like a flood His mercy reigns. Unending love, amazing grace.”

— Challenged to continue practicing evangelism every day in order to reach the lost, prisoners to sin.

As I left the prison, I heard the bell ring again — it was once more time to count the offenders in the Darrington Unit. I smiled. When God rings His bell, He will be able to count offenders in TDCJ correctional facilities as members of heaven.