News Articles

Forgiveness yields chapel to change inmates’ lives

MANSFIELD, La. (BP)–The day started like any other that Oct. 23 in 1990. Gary Hobbs was working his usual Tuesday night 3-11 shift for the police department in Mansfield, La. At 9:20 p.m., Hobbs was accompanying a parole officer to issue a probation warrant for the arrest of Todd Bass.

Bass, however, resisted the arrest and fatally wounded the parole officer. Bass then fired six shots at Hobbs, who retaliated with nine rounds. Hobbs suffered only a minor wound to his wrist and missed a week of work.

The felon was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.

Fourteen years later, Hobbs said he had come to a point of personal misery and emptiness in his life. He then visited Southside Baptist Church in Mansfield on June 16, 2004. It was the first time Hobbs had darkened the doors of a church building.

Four days later, during the Sunday morning service, Hobbs accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.

“Everything changed from that point,” Hobbs said. “It’s amazing how you can walk into a building all depressed with no peace and come out a totally different person.”

Five months later, on Nov. 7, 2004, Hobbs heard then-Southside Baptist pastor Troy Terrell preach about forgiveness.

“The Lord spoke to me,” Hobbs said, “and after the service was over, I told the pastor that God was revealing lots of hatred that was built inside me.”

Two weeks later, Hobbs and Terrell visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola so that the police officer could sit face to face with Bass. “I told him of the change in my life and that I didn’t have a problem with him anymore,” Hobbs recounted. “He stared at the ground for a few moments and looked up at me with tears running down his eyes.

“I then heard the most sincere apology I had ever heard,” Hobbs said. “From then on, there were no hard feelings between us.”

After their meeting, Hobbs and Terrell toured Angola, which they knew had a reputation as a violent prison.

“Wherever I went on the tour, I experienced nothing but a friendly reception from the prisoners,” Hobbs said. “I didn’t feel threatened or hear any foul language. Moral rehabilitation has changed their lives.”

Once known as the bloodiest prison in the United States, the Angola prison has experienced a revival of sorts since warden Burl Cain instituted moral rehabilitation.

Moral rehabilitation is an approach that utilizes religious organizations to help inmates change.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has been a vital part of Cain’s moral rehabilitation philosophy. Since 1995, the Southern Baptist seminary has offered extension classes at the prison.

Cain attributes the seminary program as a primary reason for the drop in violence at Angola. The number of men involved in an assault within Angola’s walls has dropped from 10.4 percent of the inmates in 2001 to 7.4 percent in 2004, according to prison officials.

After the tour concluded, Hobbs and Terrell met with Cain. The warden asked why the men had traveled to Angola.

“During our talk, Warden Cain mentioned that while Angola had all the funds they needed for their religious programs, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel needed money to construct a chapel inside their prison. My pastor said we could raise $150,000.”

Within 45 days, Southside Baptist Church members and others from the community raised more than was needed.

Hobbs said $150,000 was presented in March 2005 to the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation for the construction of a 700-seat chapel inside the LCIW prison walls. Construction of the facility should be complete in six to eight months.

Twenty-one members from Southside Baptist Church traveled to the south Louisiana women’s prison for the chapel’s groundbreaking ceremony in January. The Shreveport Times reported that the members received a standing ovation for their fundraising efforts.

“While the labor to build the chapels is free due to prisoners building the facilities, the cost of materials can’t be done without help,” Hobbs said. “Throughout the years, we have seen rehabilitation programs that utilize the Bible can change prisoners.

“If you change the prisoners and they are released, then they may have a positive effect on the rest of their families,” the police officer continued. “In turn, those family members will not resort to a life a crime.”

Terrell, now in fulltime evangelism, echoed the thought.

“The only way to change a person is when Jesus enters his or her heart,” Terrell said. “By building the chapels in the women’s prisons, we are breaking lots of generational curses. Statistics show that children of prisoners have a higher chance of going to prison.

“If the bloodiest prison in America can become the most-evangelized prison, anything is possible,” Terrell said.
Brian Blackwell is a writer with the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.