ANGOLA, La. (BP)–What was once known as America’s bloodiest prison will now be known as a missionary-sending agency.
Angola Prison warden Burl Cain says that, because of the success of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center program at America’s largest maximum security prison, as well as the success of Cain’s moral education programs, wardens from other prisons across Louisiana are asking him for help.
More specifically, they are asking him to send some of his NOBTS graduates to come as missionaries to their prisons, where they hope to see the same changes occur.
“Now we’ve got another calling,” Cain said. “We will send missionaries out to other prisons. What better place than in prison to see lives changed?”
Cain’s remarks highlighted the third NOBTS graduation ceremonies at Angola, held in the dining hall at the prison on Tuesday, May 28. NOBTS President Chuck Kelley conferred 59 degrees on students who had completed courses in the seminary’s newly renamed Leavell College, honoring NOBTS President Emeritus Dr. Landrum P. Leavell II, his grandparents, George Washington and Cora (Berry) Leavell, and their extended family.
“The Apostle Paul once wrote that his imprisonment had advanced the gospel,” Kelley said. “That happened 2,000 years ago. Can you imagine how it makes us feel that Warden Cain is sending out missionaries from Angola?
“A man of faith can never be imprisoned,” he added. “They can lock you down, but they can never lock you up.”
When New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary began its Angola Prison extension center, Cain said he could have had no idea the impact it would have made in such a woeful and hopeless place. Since its beginnings as an Experiencing God study, the program has seen some 700 men profess Christ, and Cain said the prison is now home to about 2,000 Christians. Prisoners say the prison just isn’t the same anymore.
“This is no longer the bloodiest prison in America,” said Jesse Deters, Angola inmate and NOBTS alumnus. “You can’t even see a good fist fight anymore.”
Once known as one of the most dangerous men at Angola, Leonard Bastida, chosen to deliver the student response, gave an account of his 36 years at the prison. He described how he had entered the prison with 14 other men, of whom only five still “belonged to themselves” after 30 days of incarceration. Bastida said he had personal friends that were killed and that killed in a struggle for daily survival in the prison, where protection rackets and gangs were the rule and not the exception. “It was not a nice place to be,” he said finally.
Since that time, the prison has changed, he said. Cain’s arrival marked not only differences in programs, but the addition and renovation of facilities. Bastida especially remembered the addition of a chapel, created out of what was once a blood and plasma donation center. For him, it was only the beginning of what God is doing at the prison.
“It is beyond understanding as to what’s taking place here at Angola,” Bastida said. “There has been not only the conversion of buildings, but also the conversion of people.”
In his address to the prisoners, Kelley charged the inmates to rest in the presence of Jesus, who has given each one of them the gifts of “now” and “then.” The gift of “now,” he said, was Jesus’ promise of his presence with them everyday. The gift of “then” is Jesus’ promise of eternity in heaven.
“Whatever now looks like, Jesus is always there,” Kelley said. “And when now gets too tough, you’ve got the second gift of then in Heaven. That’s your graduation gift from Jesus: now and then.”
Kelley also reminded the prisoners of their value in the Kingdom of God, reminding them of who Jesus was while on the earth.
“What God is doing at Angola is an illustration for the world to see: This is who God is,” said Kelley. “When God gave the clearest revelation of Himself, He did it in Rome’s version of death row.”
After the graduation, Cain took NOBTS faculty, staff and other guests to a recently built chapel in Camp D, where in 1999 four inmates took several police guards prisoner, finally killing the captain before they were apprehended. Cain said the prisoners actually feared Camp D because they “thought that demons were there.”
“We built this chapel here to run away the demons,” Cain said.
Cain took time to thank those representatives of NOBTS, saying, “You opened the door and you let it happen, and God gets all the glory for it.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MISSIONS IN PRISON.