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Katrina broadened Angola inmates’ ministry

ANGOLA, La. (BP)–Each graduating class of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary aptly may be called a “Katrina class” for the next several years: In one way or another, NOBTS students were all put to the test by the storm.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, home to the seminary’s first prison extension program, escaped the damage and destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. However, inmates there are well-acquainted with the far-reaching impact of the hurricane, as some 2,000 prisoners from the New Orleans area were deposited there temporarily.

“About two years ago, our program underwent a major test,” said Darryl Waters, an inmate who was among 44 Angola graduates to receive their diplomas May 22. “Within a week after Katrina hit New Orleans, an influx of Orleans and Jefferson Parish prisoners entered the gates of Angola.

“Our local, state and federal governments were not quite prepared to handle a catastrophe of that magnitude,” he continued, “but we were.”

Shortly after the influx, prison leaders called on the inmate ministers to help console the displaced prisoners.

“We began to immediately meet the needs of our traumatized guests,” Waters recounted. “Soon, we were praying, preaching, counseling, visiting and weeping with our newfound friends.”

The inmate ministers went person-to-person, comforting the New Orleans-area prisoners who had family members stranded in the floodwaters. On some occasions, they were there to cry with inmates when they were told that a loved one had died in the flood.

While the Angola students went about counseling, they shared the Gospel as well. Shortly thereafter, the inmate ministers secured an inflatable swimming pool in which 27 new Christians were baptized from among the 2,000 displaced prisoners. After a Bible study, at least 25 more placed their faith in Christ. In all, an estimated 200 New Orleans-area prisoners made commitments to Christ during their stay at Angola.

“God is really doing something special at Angola,” said Norris Grubbs, NOBTS associate dean of its Louisiana and Mississippi extension centers. “Our students have helped to change the culture of the prison there, and God is using them in mighty ways.”

For the inmates studying for ministry, it was an exciting time. Waters readily gave God the glory.

“We have come to understand that where we are does not determine nor diminish who we are,” he said. “We thank our Lord Jesus Christ for doing the work in and through our lives.”

For the Angola extension center graduates, growing in their faith meant gaining a new perspective on their incarceration.

“A lot of people look at Angola and think of it as the end of the world,” Kyle Hebert of Chalmette, La., said. “It’s not the end of the world. It was the beginning. God allowed me to come here to be reformed.”

It also brought a new sense of purpose to the inmates.

For Levy Williams of Baton Rouge, La., God used his seminary studies to instill an evangelistic fervor in him. Upon his release, Williams hopes to serve as a traveling evangelist.

Few of the Angola inmates, though, can make post-release ministry plans. Some 95 percent of them never leave. And yet, being a prisoner and being a pastor are not mutually exclusive roles. Their cell block is their cell church.

Prison-wide, the impact of the New Orleans Seminary program at Angola has been enormous. In the 12 years since coursework began, prison violence has dropped more than 80 percent. Angola, once considered the bloodiest prison in America, is now a model of prisoner reform.

Twelve Angola graduates have been sent to six other prisons to help train inmates to live the Christian life and, as a result, curb prison violence. Just as New Testament missionaries were sent out two-by-two, Angola missionaries are sent out in pairs to the other prisons. Inmates at other state prisons even are requesting transfers to Angola so they can receive the NOBTS training.

Other states are adapting the Angola model to fit their particular situations. The NOBTS extension center at Mississippi’s Parchman penitentiary celebrated its first graduating class May 23 and soon a similar seminary program will begin in a Georgia prison.

And the impact is not just regional; it’s global. NOBTS President Chuck Kelley told Angola’s graduates that, as he tells their story to people around the world, the work of God in their lives is having a worldwide impact.

“I want you to understand that you are making an impact all over the world outside this place,” Kelley said. “Yes, there may be bars. Yes, there may be razor wire. But there is a liberty in Christ that nothing can ever change.”

Angola students may earn both the associate’s degree in Christian ministry and the bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry. The May 22 graduation ceremony was the fourth in the Angola extension center’s 12-year history. Thus far, more than 150 inmates have graduated from the program.

The program was the vision of Angola Warden Burl Cain, a Southern Baptist who, in 1995, met with Baton Rouge-area director of missions T.W. Terral to discuss ways to disciple new Christians at Angola. Within months, the partnership with New Orleans Seminary had taken off. Under the leadership of John Robson, director of the Angola extension center, students in the program not only are impacting other long-term inmates but they are hoping to impact short-term prisoners with the Gospel before they commit crimes that will entail long-term sentences.

After the graduation ceremony, inmates and their guests gathered in the prison’s cafeteria for a reception. Hanging overhead was a banner that read, “The tassel is worth the hassle.”

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  • Michael McCormack