ANGOLA, La. (BP)–The gates shut as the volunteers walk past the rows of razor wire and an unsettling feeling of the macabre life envelops the group. Before they enter a tier of jail cells, the group pauses to pray for the grim-faced mugshots posted on the wall.
“I’m not an animal just because I’m locked up,” an inmate later tells a volunteer. He’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars until his execution day at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
“Seeing these young men on death row locked up … it’s heartbreaking,” said John Elliott, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Natchitoches, La. Even so, he said, “I’m glad I got be a part of this … and share [the Gospel].”
More than 155 Louisiana Baptist volunteers prepared food, led revival services and participated in one-on-one evangelism in cells and dorms of prisoners during the annual Angola Revival.
The May 15-16 outreach began with a service in the prison’s rodeo arena. The Real Encounter team, an extreme sports ministry based in Missouri, showcased their skills before giving a Gospel message and extending an invitation to turn to Christ.
A reported 105 decisions, including 66 professions of faith, were recorded during the revival, with the number of decisions expected to increase as volunteers report on their experiences during the outreach.
Some 5,200 inmates reside in Angola. For the 3,900 who live in dorms, volunteers ate lunch and visited with them in their dorms and on the yard.
Meanwhile at Camp F, which houses death row, volunteers spent about 20 minutes with each inmate sharing the Gospel and listening. Tracts and follow-up material were slid through the bars. At one cell, an inmate extended his hands out of the slot for his meal tray and clasped the volunteer’s hands for prayer. Another sang a praise song that echoed down the hall.
Elliott visited with several of the death row inmates, some already Christians. But one inmate’s statement stood above any other. He had made a profession of faith prior to the volunteers’ visit. “He told me he didn’t look at it [his current situation] as if it were death row. Rather, he looked at it as ‘life row’…. He knows that he’s going to heaven,” Elliott recounted.
For the death row inmates, unable to attend the revival services –- and limited in the time they can spend outside their cells — this one-on-one time was their only opportunity to hear the Gospel during the outreach.
The Louisiana Baptist disaster relief volunteers worked side by side nearly through the night preparing shrimp pasta for 2,500 for lunch Friday. The first meals were served at 10:30 a.m. to prisoners attending the revival service in the arena and the security officers on duty.
In the arena, the controlled, but excited crowd chanted, “back flip, back flip,” as two Real Encounter BMX riders prepare for a stunt. The inmates stand to their feet and cheer as the riders complete their back flips off a ramp.
Not wanting to lose the energy of the group, Brad Bennett shared his testimony and the love of Christ. Asking the men to close their eyes and lift their hands to indicate a decision for Christ, raised hands could be seen throughout the crowd. These men were then asked to stand in boldness as a way of showing their commitment. Volunteers with Bibles and follow-up materials in hand helped counsel the men as they began their journey as believers.
“The amount of guys trained to share the Gospel and the number of inmate ministers … it’s continued to make a tremendous impact on the change that has been at Angola,” said David Jeffreys, a member of Highland Baptist Church in New Iberia, La.
“The believing prisoners have a passion to reach other prisoners,” said Bart Walker, pastor of Kingsville Baptist Church in Ball, La.
Volunteers joined prison ministers as they invited their friends and fellow inmates to various revival services at the penitentiary. During a testimony time at a service at Camp J, one inmate stood and said to the group, “I’ve been in this camp for a significant time and this is the first time in church….” As the service concluded, inmates and volunteers, arm in arm, surrounded one inmate who had made a profession of faith to pray for him.
Brad DeLaughter, a chaplain at the penitentiary, noted, “What the Angola Revival does is it touches people. Louisiana Baptists are making a contribution. You are not just a ‘drive-by’ ministry.”
B-LINE BLOCK PARTY
After the weekend’s revival services and one-on-one witnessing to prisoners, volunteers turned their efforts toward Angola’s B-Line — employee housing for approximately 650 people who work at the penitentiary. Located on the prison grounds, it’s a separate community complete with a recreation facility, golf course and shooting range. Some families have lived on the prison grounds for two or three generations. “It’s home, this is all I know,” one guard said. “It’s a family, a community. We’ve grown up together…. I know their kids, they know mine.”
The Real Encounter team presented its extreme sports showcase for the B-Line community and concluded with a message and invitation after which a number of children and adults made decisions.
“It makes me feel really good to help spread the Word of God to these people,” said Bryan Savoy, another Highland Baptist Church member.
For Jimmy Cox, also of Highland Baptist, participating in a block party for the B-Line community was an opportunity to minister to people he had known some 10 years earlier as a prisoner at Angola.
“I got saved at a retreat here,” Cox recounted. “[Warden Burl] Cain has been a vessel for God to institute these changes.
“Guys saw me today and see Christ in me,” Cox added. “[Now I am here] at the block party, witnessing to officers.”
The site where volunteers set up inflatables and cooked hot dogs and hamburgers is where DeLaughter hopes to build a chapel for the B-Line community. “Nobody else comes in and ministers to the officers and their families,” the chaplain said.
David Denton, Highland Baptist’s pastor, said it was exciting “to be a part of the ‘watering process’ and lay the groundwork [for future ministry]. This was one way for us to fulfill the Acts 1:8 strategy [of carrying the Gospel regionally, nationally and internationally]. We look forward to participating again when the opportunity arises.”
Wayne Jenkins, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s evangelism church growth team, recounted a young boy’s question at the end of the block party as an inflatable slide was packed up: “Hey mister, you going to put the slide back up? You coming back tomorrow?”
The convention currently is planning for additional B-Line outreach through an upcoming Vacation Bible School.
Stacey Billger is the missions media strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. For information about the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s future ministries at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, contact the convention’s evangelism church growth team at 318-448-3402 or visit www.LBC.org/Evangelism.