NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Warden Burl Cain and several current and former members of the Louisiana State Penitentiary prison program led chapel at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in April, giving the seminary community a firsthand glimpse into the spiritual impact of the program.
Chuck Kelley, the seminary’s president, said the Angola program can be traced to Cain’s vision and faith.
“It was about 16 years ago when a Baptist layman took his faith to work,” Kelley said. “His work happened to be serving as warden of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the United States, … known as the bloodiest prison in America.”
Despite that reputation, Cain believed in the power of the Gospel to change lives, Kelley said.
“He had a deep-seated conviction in the power and possibility of moral rehabilitation and the fact that God could do a work in any life,” Kelley said.
The warden turned to his local Baptist association’s director of missions, who happened to be an NOBTS graduate. The director of missions, then, put Cain in contact with New Orleans Seminary. The rest is history.
More than 200 inmates have graduated from the seminary’s Angola program, violence is down remarkably at the prison and inmates are being sent from Angola to help change the cultures in other state prisons.
In addition, New Orleans Seminary has started undergraduate programs at state penitentiaries in Mississippi and Georgia, as well as Louisiana’s women’s prison at St. Gabriel. Several other seminaries have started their own prison programs.
“The result of the vision and the dream of Burl Cain is the greatest living illustration of the power of the Gospel that I have ever personally witnessed,” Kelley said. “The ripples of Angola simply continue to go on and on.”
While Kelley praised Cain for having the vision for change, Cain praised the seminary for having the courage to take action.
“You jumped down into the prison, into the very bowels of society, and you picked it up and it started changing lives there,” Cain said at the April 12 chapel. “We know that the culture has changed within the prison. There is no doubt.
“Before the seminary came, we had Christian prisoners who were trying to live a Christian life in their cell blocks,” the warden said. “But it was only when they had the training from the seminary that they were able to make a difference with the other prisoners.”
Two Angola inmates joined Cain at the seminary to testify to the dramatic change at the prison.
One of them, Gary Landry, shared two hymns in chapel — “In the Garden” and “How Great Thou Art.” Landry said it was with “overwhelming joy” that he played the piano and sang the two hymns in Leavell Chapel.
Angola student Daryl Waters shared his story of going from a college track athlete to a prison inmate. Throughout his testimony, Waters praised God for his grace and faithfulness along the way.
“I’m so humbled by this opportunity. Only God could do such a thing,” Waters said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Certainly I don’t deserve to be where I am today, in the midst of such a great people.’ God is good.”
Waters said he was raised primarily by his grandmother in a Christian home in rural Louisiana. He eventually went to college on a track scholarship. During college, Waters said, he began to go down the wrong path.
“I ventured for the first time onto the proverbial other side of the tracks,” he said. “The world came at me with its allures, and I was taken. I’ve been incarcerated now for almost 18 years.”
Waters placed his faith in Christ and repented while in prison in Florida. He said he overheard some inmates studying the Bible and singing “Amazing Grace.” Hearing that helped him return to his roots and reach out to Christ, he said.
“From that day to this day, I’ve been walking by faith in His grace, trying to please God,” Waters said.
Waters said in 1994 he got word that when he finished his sentence in Florida he would be transferred to Angola to serve a life sentence. He had already heard of the violence at Angola.
“I did like King Hezekiah. I cried out to the Lord,” Waters recalled. “I prayed a simple prayer. I said, ‘God, please change Angola.'”
Waters offered up that prayer not long before Cain approached the seminary to begin the prison program.
“When I arrived at Angola in 2001, I knew that God had answered that prayer,” Waters said.
Soon, Waters enrolled in the NOBTS Angola program. He said the intense coursework helped him grow in his faith and become a better minister at the prison. The Angola program, Waters said, gave him and other inmates at the prison a fresh start.
“I think for some of us it was just an opportunity to do something good. We’d done so many bad things. We were living with that regret every day. Now we had an opportunity to do good, to give back,” he said. “We began to serve the local church, the church at Angola.”
Echoing Cain, Waters offered special thanks to Kelley and the seminary trustees “for having faith in God and loving people enough to give.”
“I am so blessed and so thankful that, despite this life sentence I have, I am free,” he said.
In related news, the North American Mission Board documentary about the Angola program, titled “A New Hope,” won the Jury’s Special Award in the documentary category at the renowned WorldFest Film Festival, held in Houston April 8-17. The award is the top prize at the international independent film festival.
The film by Herb Kossover will be screened at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix in June.
Trustees officially named the NOBTS prison program the “JoAnn Horner Center of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola” following a $250,000 gift in her memory.
Frank Michael McCormack writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.