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Theological education aiding ‘maximum security’ churches

ANGOLA, La. (BP)–Can theological education be considered a useful tool in providing rehabilitation and even revival for murderers, rapists and other violent crime offenders?

Several key leaders know it can, including Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Jimmy Dukes, academic dean of the NOBTS undergraduate degree program; and Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La.

Linked in a three﷓way partnership with Judson Baptist Association in Baton Rouge, La., the Angola prison and New Orleans Seminary are working to change lives and rehabilitate prisoners through a unique educational program within the prison.

What began as a dream several years ago for Cain has become a reality as 50 men are attending classes each week and working toward a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministries through New Orleans Seminary’s school of Christian training.

Educating and developing the ministers of the 16 inmate led congregations within the prison walls has been a priority for the seminary. “We are happy to have the opportunity to provide training for the congregational leadership and to work with Warden Cain and other Christian leaders at Angola,” Dukes said.

“I merely set the stage where it can happen and removed all the obstacles,” Cain said of his willingness to see men being equipped to tell others about Jesus Christ.

In fact, having better access to religious activities has given birth to a revival at the prison.

In the summer of 1995, T.W. Terral, director of missions for the Judson association, was asked to meet with the warden by George Roundtree, a former professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge who was doing sociology studies at the prison.

During lunch together, Cain told Terral prisoners were requesting complete Bibles, not just New Testaments, and he needed help in obtaining them.

Terral said Judson association could supply 2,000 Bibles and thought that would be all Cain needed.

Cain then told Terral more than 700 men recently had accepted Christ as their Savior and he needed help in discipling these new converts.

Could the association help disciple these young Christians?

Judson responded with volunteers to teach “Experiencing God,” and within a year 480 men had completed the course and 100 more were on a waiting list. This ministry also led to a class on chemical dependency sponsored by the Baptist association.

“I thought surely he was finished then, but he wasn’t,” Terral said.

“We have 16 inmate﷓led congregations,” Cain told Terral. “… we need to give these men better training to lead their congregations.” Could he help?

“It had to be of God because I was making commitments without knowing how we could do it,” Terral said. “It was the grace of the Lord because without one budget penny we provided all the Bibles, ‘Experiencing God’ textbooks, chemical dependency textbooks and all the textbooks needed for the seminary classes.”

By September 1995, the connection had been made with New Orleans Seminary, and 50 students were enrolled in the seminary’s school of Christian training pastoral ministries degree program through the seminary’s extension center office in Baton Rouge, under the direction of John H. Robson.

Now after more than a year building a solid reputation of caring perseverance, the program still has 50 students (all that there are textbooks for) as of the second semester registration this past January, Robson said. About 30 students attend classes full time and the rest are part time.

To be considered as possible students, the men must be active leaders in one of the congregations on the prison grounds. Each student is reviewed once a year in order to continue in the program. Enrollment has been stable over the past year and a half, even though a few students dropped out after they realized the pastoral ministries degree program was not for them. Some students dropped out of the program to work on litigation, while others have been transferred to different prisons. Such cases have made room for some of those on the waiting list to matriculate.

“The challenge for seminaries today is to make theological education as accessible as possible and to make what happens in the classroom as relevant as possible to the realities students face in the world,” Kelley said.

These challenges have led New Orleans Seminary to open extension center campuses across the southeastern United States over the past 20 years. Currently, New Orleans Seminary has 13 extension center campuses. The newest extension center location is the program at Angola.

“When we learned that God was transforming the lives of prisoners in Angola, and that those transformed men were wanting to learn how to evangelize and disciple each other, starting an extension center in a prison was an easy and logical decision to make,” Kelley said.

Many of the prisoners look forward to the day when they will be free to leave the Angola prison. But for some –those with life sentences–Angola will be their home until they die. For these men, the Angola penitentiary is their mission field.

“I am learning to build healthy churches,” said inmate Wilford Cain, a church pastor in the prison and a seminary student, echoing Kelley’s mission statement for the entire seminary. “I’ve embraced my calling, and I’ve decided I am going to continue my ministry. The better equipped I am, the more effective I can be on the outside.”

“The potential for this program is tremendous,” said Thomas Strong, NOBTS director of undergraduate extension centers. “The opportunity is present to change an untold number of lives through personal study at the seminary at Angola. As a result, these students will have the opportunity to grow spiritually and then in turn they will be equipped to become better instruments of change in other peoples’ lives, whether in the prison system or after their release.”

Cain is matter-of-fact about the need to give all prison inmates the opportunity to know who Jesus is, saying he is only doing what his Christian parents taught him to do. “My mother said to me, ‘Son, God gave you a great opportunity to tell others about Jesus.'”

Unashamedly, Cain tells the inmates about Jesus, for, in Cain’s words, “moral rehabilitation is true rehabilitation. A Christian man … will live a life that is Christlike.”

“The work of theological education is not an excuse to withdraw from the world for quiet reflection,” Kelley said. “Reflection is and should be a part of the process.

“But theological education is also an opportunity to engage the world and its problems with the Word of God and see what happens.

“I believe doing theological education in Angola is an opportunity to offer the world an illustration of the transforming power of the gospel and to clarify for all who observe us that redemption is number one on God’s agenda for the world,” Kelley said.

Currently, the education is provided free of charge for all inmates enrolled in the program; Cain provides classroom space for the seminary’s use. Until recently, all faculty were volunteers. “I am grateful to those who make sacrifices to teach for us in the Angola program and to those who have supported the work financially,” Dukes said.

Donations provided textbooks for the initial 50 students; more funding will be needed to provide books for inmates on the waiting list to enroll.

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