PARCHMAN, Miss. (BP)–At Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary, 17 inmates and their families gathered in the prison’s visitation building to celebrate a first in the state’s prison system’s history -– a seminary graduation ceremony.
Those 16 inmates made up the first graduating class of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s new Parchman extension center which began offering classes in 2005. NOBTS’ undergraduate ministry training at Parchman joins its inaugural prison extension center at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The program at Parchman was jumpstarted by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s wife Marsha. Shortly after her husband took office in 2004, she began to press for a more robust educational program within the prison system.
“I found out they didn’t have anything like this, and I challenged Haley’s staff to look at different models to see what other prisons were doing,” Marsha Barbour said. “Daryl Neely, Haley’s policy adviser, actually got to work on it, visited Angola, and that’s how it got started.”
So in 2005, with the support of Parchman Superintendent Lawrence Kelly and Parchman Extension Center director Johnny Bley, 34 students began coursework for the associate’s degree in Christian ministry.
The support of both Barbour and prison leadership is crucial for the program’s success.
“We were excited to have Mrs. Barbour participate in the first graduation at Parchman,” said Norris Grubbs, NOBTS associate dean of NOBTS’ Louisiana and Mississippi extension centers. “The support of the state of Mississippi and the prison administration is essential for our programs to work effectively. We pray that God will use the students at Parchman to impact those around them in many ways.”
The challenge for the training program is twofold: to make a lasting impact on inmates while they are in prison and to prepare them for life again in the “free world.” Students of the program and their families leave no doubt as to its success so far.
Debra Harris, whose son Benjamin received an associate’s degree in Christian ministry at Parchman, quickly approached representatives of the seminary after arriving from Oklahoma to express her thanks.
“Are you all responsible to this?” she asked with a smile. “As a parent, I want to thank you so much for making this possible.”
Harris said her son, now 31, has been at Parchman 12 years.
“I remember when this first started he’d kind of hit a point in his life where [he realized] that he was going to be here forever. It was sinking in and weighing heavy,” Harris said. “Before he came here, I had prayed for something to happen to him to change his life.
“He ended up here, and in a very strange way, this was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Harris said.
Demetrius Bennett, a native of East St. Louis, Ill., who graduated with an associate’s degree, said other students in the program had the biggest impact on him. Bennett said his involvement in gang activity brought him to prison 19 years ago. God used the transformation Bennett saw in the lives of former rival gang members to get his attention.
“I’m looking at guys who used to be gang members, and when I gave my life to the Lord, we weren’t adversaries like I thought,” Bennett said. “When we came together with the Lord, we began fighting on the same team.”
Bennett graduated just in time, because he anticipates being released in August. Upon his release, he said he plans to use his testimony as a former gang member as a tool for ministering to teenagers and helping them stand up against peer pressure.
While every student has a different story about how God drew him to enroll in the seminary program, their steadfast commitment to studying God’s Word is the same.
“They moved the faith-based people over to our building and I had a friend come over to me after about three weeks,” Tim Curry of Gulfport, Miss., said of how he enrolled in program. “He handed me an application for the school, and I said, ‘No, there’s no way.’
“I didn’t even have a Bible, but I just felt the Lord move on me. From that point, I just set my face and didn’t worry about anything else,” Curry said.
A former Marine who also studied at Mississippi State University, Curry said he has an idea of what his post-prison ministry may look like.
“God’s going to need people to minister to people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “I’ll have some insight on what they’re going to go through. I know that God will do the rest.”
At the May 23 graduation, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley urged the students to remain steadfast in their mission by pointing to another inmate minister — the Apostle Paul.
“He spent most of the second part of his life in one prison or another,” Kelley said. “He was well-acquainted with the life behind bars.”
Paul, like the graduates at Parchman, had his share of successes, Kelley said, but Paul knew that those temporal accomplishments could not compare to what awaited him in heaven in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
“Whatever you accomplish and however far you go,” Kelley said, “Jesus wants to take you further and further.”
Kelley pointed to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and to his unparalleled ministry, noting that God continued to work in Paul’s life, and He also continues to work in the lives of the Parchman inmates.
“Gentlemen, that is what God wants you to know,” Kelley said. “From the heart of this prisoner in Rome to your hearts here at Parchman, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you have accomplished, you haven’t even begun yet to see all that Jesus has to do for you and what He wants to do through you.”
The same can be said for the NOBTS prison extension centers. From the first program in Angola, La., to the one in Parchman, a third is set to begin at a Georgia prison in the fall or spring to transform the lives of inmates from the inside out.