LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (BP)–Sitting behind the wheel of his aging car, Mike Crowell headed south out of Kentucky toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The United States was a month away from celebrating its bicentennial and Crowell was heading toward the bayous and swamps of Louisiana in hopes of making enough money in the booming oil industry to return to college the following September.
With his freshman year from the University of Kentucky behind him, Mike hoped a friend’s advice about high-paying jobs on an offshore oil derrick would be correct and he could return home with his pockets full of cash and exciting stories to tell his college friends.
However, Crowell would return home with something else.
The teenager landed in Houma, La., and began his search for a summer job. The summer did not start out well as Crowell found himself sleeping in a filthy, run-down rooming house with other oilfield workers. For two weeks he could only find the worst of the worst jobs, taking day labor, roustabout jobs whenever he could.
Then he was given the name of Al Nichols, a man who had some hiring pull for one of the major oil companies.
Crowell visited Nichols and told him of his struggle to find a good job. Nichols was sympathetic and called someone. Within minutes, Crowell was traveling further south along Bayou Lafourche toward a better job.
His sleeping quarters improved as well as his employment. He found a hotel room above a bar in Larose, and each morning he boarded a helicopter to fly to a platform in the Gulf of Mexico to work. Days became routine and the money he had hoped for began filling his pockets. Still, something was missing in his life.
One Sunday evening, out of loneliness and boredom, Crowell decided to take a drive.
Traveling south out of Larose he wound up in Golden Meadow, a sleepy fishing community where most people spoke French rather than English in the mid-1970s. A sign advertising First Baptist Church of Golden Meadow caught his eye and before he knew it, Crowell was turning into the church parking lot.
Standing behind the pulpit was Claude Fontenot, delivering a sermon in French. Crowell recalls thinking he was in another country, another world perhaps.
Soon, a second service began, this time with Fontenot speaking to the congregation in English. Crowell stayed.
One Sunday night turned into another for Crowell. That led to a relationship with Fontenot, who personally shared the plan of salvation with Crowell during the summer. As Fontenot shared Christ, the members of the church showed love to the young college student and accepted him as one of their own.
The summer ended and Crowell returned to college in Kentucky. However, a few weeks passed and he knew he needed to make another decision. The words of Fontenot had made sense and Crowell was convicted and knew he needed to personally ask Jesus into his heart. Finding a local pastor, Crowell prayed to receive Christ and began a new life.
“God used everyone, including Bro. Fontenot to point me to Christ,” Crowell said.
Crowell immediately joined Campus Crusade for Christ and began telling others about the new joy he had found in Jesus. But only a short time passed, when he made a phone call back to south Louisiana to tell his new friends about accepting Christ. Not only did he call Claude Fontenot, but he also tracked down Al Nichols to tell him the story.
After catching Nichols up on his life, Crowell wanted to thank the man who helped him get a fresh start. “You helped me find a job that helped me find Jesus Christ,” Crowell told Nichols.
With a voice full of emotion, Nichols profusely thanked Crowell for his phone call and replied, “You could not have said anything better than those words to me,” the oilfield supervisor and Sunday school teacher told Crowell.
Nichols was stirred by the change in Crowell’s life, because upon accepting Christ, he knew he needed to be serving his Lord in a fulltime vocation. A college degree and a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary degree followed and Crowell found himself in a role as a federal prison chaplain. This experience led him to his present position as lead chaplain at the United States penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
As a chaplain in the federal bureau of prisons, Crowell ministers to inmates and to staff. That role means he must have knowledge of the 14 different religious groups that exist within the walls of the penitentiary. Once a week he leads a Bible study, as well as conducting religious services in the prison chapel. Considering there are 1,650 inmates in the main prison, 450 in a satellite camp, as well as 600 staff, there are a lot of spiritual needs behind the razor wire and century-old brick walls.
“The context is abnormal because you see the worst in humanity here,” the Southern Baptist-endorsed chaplain said of his workplace. “In here, it is not hard to see the depravity of humanity.”
Still, the men who are sentenced for committing horrible crimes are in need of a Savior and Crowell wants to show these men there is freedom from their sins.
“Grace is a strong message here. It is self-evident they have sinned and grace is very pertinent,” he said. “It is a dark spiritual atmosphere because many are such hardened criminals.”
The average sentence is 35 years, which gives Crowell an opportunity to get to know the men so they can hear the gospel. But for many, Leavenworth is not their first prison experience. In fact, most have heard at some time in their life the gospel message.
“Many have heard the gospel but they are hardened by choices, hardened by life and hardened by sin. So that is the uniqueness of this place,” he said.
The diversity in religion does not mean Chaplain Crowell has to downplay Christ or the gospel.
“You must maintain your call,” the Southern Baptist chaplain said. “I maintain the light of the gospel in the midst of a lot of spiritual challenges and darkness.”
Like most prisons, there is no doubt Leavenworth can be dangerous and intimidating, yet rewarding for a man who feels a special calling into this unique setting, Crowell explained.
“They [the inmates] are so hardened by deceitfulness of sin and have been under the influence of sin for so long,” he said. “People have their guard up, even in worship. But I am encouraged when I hear someone say, ‘I read the Bible you gave me.'”
Despite the harsh words he is called sometimes as we walks down one of the tiers in the prison, Crowell said he is also encouraged when an inmate takes a stand for Christ and says he is a Christian.
Jesus came to set the captive free, maybe not from penitentiary, but true freedom takes place when someone comes to know him as Lord, Crowell said.
“Jesus did not just go to the righteous, he went to people most hopeless and in deepest darkness,” Crowell said.
From the young college student searching for a job in south Louisiana to the inmate serving a life sentence for murder, Mike Crowell realizes people everywhere are in darkness and he wants to be there to share the story of grace found in Jesus Christ.