ST. GABRIEL, La. (BP)–For most seminary students, on-the-job training occurs on weekends in a local church. But for some students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, practical experience is being gained in prison.
Known as a clinical chaplain internship, students are acquiring valuable knowledge and counseling experience in this joint counseling effort between the seminary and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, La.
Administered by chaplain Gary Sumrall at LCIW and New Orleans Seminary counseling professors Macklyn Hubbell, Asa Sphar and Philip Coyle, students make the one hour trek west of New Orleans weekly and meet with the residents of the correctional facility to improve their pastoral care and counseling skills within a supervised clinical setting while ministering to those who are truly forgotten by society.
The idea of going into a prison housing the worst female offenders in the state can be frightening and intimidating for the students, “not so much for personal safety reasons,” Sumrall said, “but rather will I be able to use what I have learned in class and apply it in a practical manner?”
With guidance from Sumrall, the counseling students are stretching themselves as counselors and as Christians.
Despite the iron bars and cinderblock cells, “freedom can be gained in prison,” said Kaye Farrow, an NOBTS master of divinity degree student and counseling intern at LCIW. “My goal as a counselor is for the women to see freedom and meaning in life now,” said Farrow, originally from Selma, Ala. “Bloom where you are planted, and God can give purpose and meaning even in prison,” she said.
Like the other students, Farrow worried if she had the skills needed to make a difference in the women’s lives. However, after she arrived at the prison, Farrow realized how powerful the presence of God is and how he could use her.
Relating her experience of making rounds on the lock down row where residents with disciplinary problems are housed, Farrow said the women would be hollering and cursing, but once she arrived, unannounced, on the corridor, it would quiet down to a whisper.
“That’s the presence of God,” Farrow said.
For Sumrall, his work begins by meeting the 700 plus residents where they are and developing a trusting relationship in each counseling session. “These people are the truest example of pottery clay, broken down on the pottery wheel waiting to be remolded,” Sumrall said.
He is not interested in what brought them to prison, but with Christ’s help, he wants to remold each life and help each resident start a new life, this time with God leading the way.
“Sadly, close to 400 (residents) claim Baptist of some shape or form as their religious affiliation,” Sumrall said. “That says we are not doing the job in the local church.”
Though some are labeled as hardened criminals and beyond reach, Sumrall and the student interns feel differently.
“The greatest obstacle is my own limited view of God and what he is able to do and who he can do it with,” Farrow said. “God is so much greater than what I thought he could be. I’ve been stretched and have grown in many ways.”
Sumrall agreed. “The program is designed to stretch your boundaries. It can be very painful, but the end result can be very liberating. Growth carries with it a price. But the work is well worth it.”
Christy Miller, a master of divinity student from Sealy, Texas, was afraid to take Jesus into the prison for fear the residents would reject him. “I had to see them as real people. Jesus died for them just as he died for me,” she said. “We need to get out of our big brick churches. Stop talking and get out and go.”
Intern Angela Daniels Eberhardt, a master of divinity student from Pascagoula, Miss., said she sees a stigma among some students and their desire to stay behind the seminary walls.
“There is a real world outside, and it is our responsibility to minister to all people outside of the seminary,” Eberhardt said. “Look at Jesus. He went to where he was needed and where the people were. As Christians, we need to love as Jesus did.”
“Placing students in a prison environment exposes students to an even greater diversity of people and personalities than would otherwise be experienced in other ministry settings,” Sphar said. “This experience will further increase their potential to minister to the multiple needs of others in a real world setting.”
However, the job of Christians in the local church is to reach people in the communities in which they live before they make mistakes and end up in prison, Sumrall said. “Start at home and go into the less desirable locations like the housing projects and the ghettos,” he said.
“Christ says you are known by the fruit you bear.”