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New Orleans president shares prison ministry in SBC report

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–President Chuck Kelley described the ministry of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as both intimidating and exciting during his report on the first of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 21-22.

“On the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary we are learning what it is like to live inside a miracle,” Kelley said.

Kelley said the seminary has been called to intimidating tasks like training inmates at a maximum security prison and reconstructing much of the NOBTS campus. Seeing God provide in every situation, he said, has brought great excitement and growth to the seminary.

“We began a program of training prisoners, whose lives God was touching, on how to be a minister within that prison system,” Kelley said. “So much has taken place that PBS came to Angola State Penitentiary [in Louisiana] and they did a story on their perspective of what our great God is doing.”

Kelley showed a portion of the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly report on Angola, which aired on PBS stations across the country in 2004.

According to the PBS report, inmate violence at the prison has decreased by 40 percent since the NOBTS program started at Angola. Attacks against guards declined significantly as well.

The most important change at Angola, however, has come in the lives of individual inmates. Men who were sent to prison for heinous crimes are coming to faith in Christ. Several men shared powerful testimonies of their salvation during PBS interviews.

Because of the NOBTS training program at Angola, qualified inmates now have the opportunity to earn an accredited bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry. Newly trained graduates are sent to different areas of Angola’s sprawling 18,000-acre complex to minister to their fellow inmates. The results have been dramatic. Each of the last two years, these inmate-ministers led more than 80 prisoners to faith in Christ.

The PBS report also highlighted the inmate-missionary program initiated by Burl Cain, a Southern Baptist layman and warden at Angola. Some graduates of the NOBTS program can transfer to other Louisiana prisons to serve as inmate-missionaries.

Transferring to another prison involves great sacrifices for inmates, the PBS reporter said. Any trusteeships or privileges earned through good behavior at Angola must be forfeited. Still, many of these men are willing to give up their privileges to take to Gospel to other prisons.

“That is the God who has our lives in His hands,” Kelley said after the video concluded. “That is the God who has the power to reinvigorate the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches.”

Kelley said starting the ministry at Angola was intimidating because of all the things that could go wrong. Because Warden Cain had enough faith to let the seminary come in, he said, the seminary had enough faith to try it.

“It’s going to take courage if we are going to turn our churches around,” Kelley said. “Courage is what we are trying to build in the lives of our students and courage is what we are trying to exemplify as an institution devoted to Jesus Christ through the empowerment of Southern Baptists and the Holy Spirit of God.”

Kelley said the seminary faced another intimidating and impossible situation five and a half years ago. After lengthy inspections and research, architects working on the seminary’s campus master plan presented Kelley with a color-coded map of campus.

Each building was shaded with one of three colors. One color indicated buildings that needed to be completely replaced with new structures. Another marked the buildings that needed extensive repair and renovation. The final color designated the buildings that were in good condition and needed no repairs. Most of the campus buildings fell in the first two categories.

“They decided we could keep the chapel,” Kelley jested.

Kelley said when he looked at the map he saw an impossible task before the seminary. The seminary’s budget alone could not meet this great need. Much of the campus needed extensive renovation and reconstruction.

“How were we ever going to do something like that?” Kelley said. “The answer is, we weren’t, but God was.”

Since that time 12 major buildings have been built on campus. An additional twenty-eight new faculty homes have been completed and several new buildings are currently in progress.

“We haven’t had a great big gift of millions of dollars, but God has provided exactly what we needed for everything we did,” Kelley said. “Every single project has the fingerprints of God all over it.”

The students at NOBTS are learning that God will provide what His followers need to accomplish His work, Kelley said.

“What’s it like to live inside a miracle?” Kelley said. “It’s exciting to see God do things that you never thought would happen.”

The dramatic enrollment growth at NOBTS excites Kelley. He reported that enrollment has doubled over the past nine years and the seminary will finish the current school year with close to 4,000 students.

Another exciting moment for Kelley was the inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counter Point Forum last March. The forum consisted of a dialog between N.T. Wright, a renowned British Evangelical, and John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar.

Wright defended the literal bodily resurrection of Christ while Crossan offered a metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection. Kelley said the forum helps students learn how to share their faith in the culture.

“We want to show our students how to engage a secular, liberal world without worrying about their presuppositions, because we have confidence in the power of our God to demonstrate His own truthfulness,” Kelley said.