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Southern students help ‘liberate’ prisoners in correctional fac

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Moldy, moss-covered towers stand starkly like centurions against the sky. Foreboding music designed to frighten pigeons intent on vandalism plays as a dirge to new arrivals. The all-male, medium-security Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, Ky., is hardly welcoming.
“It’s an ominous thing” riding down that last half-mile of road before the prison, said Mark Overstreet, a Valdosta, Ga., native and a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The first day we drove in, someone said, ‘Can you imagine this being the last time you would really see the outside world?’”
Into this despairing detention, six students from the Louisville, Ky., seminary have dedicated themselves to showing prisoners how to be truly free through the love of Jesus Christ. The six are members of Southern Seminary professor of historical theology Thomas Nettles’ Sunday school class at DeHaven Memorial Baptist Church in LaGrange.
Overstreet, Eric Graf, Rob Lister, Russ Moore, Jeff Rhymer and Juan Sanchez take turns as teams of three teaching a weekly Bible study for the inmates in the most desperate section of the prison — the geriatric ward.
Alan Watts, the recreational supervisor for the prison ward, is also a member of Nettles’ Sunday school class. He proposed the ministry last December.
“‘You seminarians have a good opportunity here if you’ll just take it,’” said Overstreet, recalling Watts’ challenge. By February, the six students were on the job.
During the hour-long service, students lead the prisoners in hymns and then pray for their specific needs. “They have no reservations about how poorly they sound, or how poorly we sound,” Overstreet quipped.
Inmates also hear an expositional Bible lesson. “To know that you’re going to be teaching to a largely unconverted people who are in prison for the rest of their lives” is a challenge, said Overstreet, who described the inmates as attentive and very engaged.
“The biggest surprise to me was the Bible knowledge several of the men have,” said Sanchez, an M. Div. student from Gainesville, Fla. “I expected an evangelistic environment where the gospel was presented at an elementary level. What I found was about two or three men who understood their sinfulness, embraced God’s grace and looked forward to growing in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
The questions have often been pointed. “A few of the other men, who would not claim to be converted, have asked some very probing questions about Christianity and of their own lives,” said Lister, an M.Div. student from Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
“Can you love God if you’re not a Christian?” asked one prisoner. “What must I do to be saved?” questioned another.
“Alan, who is there on daily basis, has recounted some profound changes in the lives of a couple of the men,” said Lister, “including a strong desire to be daily in the Word and steadfast in prayer.”
“Some of the best times are going to the rooms after the service,” said Moore, a Ph.D. student from Biloxi, Miss. After each Bible study the inmates return to their rooms for the evening count. During that time, the students visit and pray with inmates too ill to attend.
“What I cherish the most is the opportunity to encourage and pray with the men individually,” added Sanchez. “At our last meeting we collected prayer requests and were humbled by the inmates’ desire to be with their children. Being the father of three girls, I immediately identified with their concerns. Yet at the end of the evening, I was able to return to my family. They were not.”
Since the beginning of the ministry, the students have built relationships and trust with the core group of inmates. “Some of them seemed very skeptical and suspicious at first,” said Overstreet. “That’s starting to wear down. Just in the fact that we’re here every week, they’re starting to get used to us. Some of them who would leave immediately after [the service] now sit around and talk.”
“It has been a wonderful environment in which to minister,” said Lister. “Certainly, many of the men in prison are hardened and have constructed in their own minds some sort of self-justification that allows them to shift their blame to someone else. But for the men who attend the Bible study, there appears to be a recognition of their own sinfulness.”
The students report on the Thursday ministry each week in their Sunday school class, and the class prays for the inmates’ specific needs, said Nettles, who is unable to attend because he teaches a Thursday night seminary class. “I look forward to the time when I can go with them and be involved in this personal witnessing opportunity,” he said. “The experience is a real blessing to those who participate and has resulted in some serious opportunities for gospel witness.”
“Usually, by Thursday night, I’m pretty gutted emotionally and physically from the week of school,” said Overstreet. “But it’s like a fresh spring when I go on Thursday nights. I go exhausted. Sometimes I go in my flesh wishing that I could sit and rest. But I come back thankful that there are ears open to hearing the gospel.”

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  • Bryan Cribb