ANGOLA, La. (BP)--As the Louisiana State Penitentiary inmates sang, their faces shined. With hands raised towards heaven, the men clad in black gowns and caps celebrated the first four-year graduation service ever to be held at the Angola prison.
"I'm trading my sorrows," they sang. "I'm trading my shame. I'm laying them down for the joy of the Lord."
Trading as many as two to four years of intensive biblical studies in exchange for diplomas adorned with their names, these 21 inmates received undergraduate degrees Jan. 31 from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, one of six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Angola extension center, set amidst 18,000 acres of farmland enclosed by barbed wire and steel bars, is one of 16 centers the seminary currently operates. The center was started in 1995 after hundreds of prisoners had completed the "Experiencing God" Bible study and wanted more education to prepare themselves for ministering within prison congregations.
"The extension center at Angola was birthed out of a dream to reach our entire state of Louisiana for Christ," said Thomas Strong, NOBTS dean of the college of undergraduate studies.
"The students who graduated are men whose faith in Christ is genuine and who are determined to reach the world in which they now find themselves for Christ," Strong noted.
"In here, you cannot fake Christianity," said inmate graduate John Sheehan. "People are watching 24 hours a day."
Now with more than 100 students, the seminary's teachings "benefit not just [the graduates], but the rest of the population," Sheehan said. "Angola is probably one of the best-evangelized prisons, but it needs people to be shepherds."
"Welcome to the place where men are not ashamed of the gospel, to be judged, to agree, to repent and see God's grace," said John Robson, director of the Angola extension center, at the ceremony's beginning. "Welcome to a place where men pray by giving up their struggle and center down and rest in him," he said.
"I have told your story everywhere I have been," said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley to the graduates, family members and prison officials attending the graduation ceremony. Referring to "the story of how in this place devoted to punishment, God is doing restoration," Kelley conferred four associate in pastoral ministries degrees, one bachelor of arts degree and 17 bachelor of general studies degrees. One inmate had both his associate and bachelor of general studies degrees conferred at the ceremony.
In his message to the graduates, the seminary president said, "I am not here simply to confer your degree. I am here to look you in your face and tell you that the reason for your training is because the church needs your work in ministry, whether it be through letters, church planting (inside and outside) or through witnessing to guards and other inmates."
Warden Burl Cain exhorted the graduates to be a shining light within the prison. A Christian himself, Cain said, "You will see many obstacles. Security people will turn against you, and other inmates will turn against you, but you must turn the other cheek."
"The greatest hero of the faith was just like you ... in a Roman version of Angola penitentiary," Kelley told the graduates, referring to the apostle Paul.
Sharing a message from Paul's "Letter from Death Row in a Prison in Rome" (2 Timothy 1), Kelley said that Paul was telling Timothy to not be ashamed of Jesus or of him, who was imprisoned for Jesus' sake. Kelley paraphrased Paul's words: "Do everything on the outside that I am doing on the inside. Stand firm in the midst of the gospel. It is hard on the outside or inside. Join me in his suffering."
Paul put himself in harm's way for sake of gospel, Kelley said. "Our same challenge is to put our life on the line for sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"We can suffer because of the bad choices we made in our lives or because of the bad choices of others," Kelley said, "or we can suffer because of our devotion to Jesus Christ."
Calling him the original jail minister, Kelley said Paul was broken, battered, abandoned by family and friends, saw church fights and divisions, shipwrecked, hungry and discouraged.
"Jesus tells us that we can't be in a circumstance that he won't make precious. When you stand in front of him at the end of your days, after all the hurt and discouragement, so great will be the glory in your soul," Kelley preached. "On your mouth won't be the question, 'Why did you let me go through this?' Instead it will be, 'Thank you, Jesus, for what you did to see me through.'
"Do you know why you're here?" Kelley asked the graduates. "It is because God came looking for you. You weren't called because of your resume or your record," he said, "but because he was calling for you.
"God, even knowing every single detail of your life, said, 'I want that one. I love him,'" Kelley said.
Kelley reminded the prisoners that most of the second half of Paul's ministry was in a prison cell. "His most significant work, including his letters written to the outside that became a large portion of the New Testament, occurred when he was in prison," he said.
Often known as one of the nation's bloodiest, this maximum-security prison has more than 5,000 prisoners who face the daily grind of living out their sentences, 85 percent of whom will never walk out of Angola alive.
Joseph Stevenson, NOBTS graduate and an inmate for 22 years who himself is serving a life sentence, said he has seen the prison go from a "bloody prison to what we see today," pointing to the culmination of the hard work and God's direction in the lives of seminary graduates.
Now an inmate pastor, Stevenson thanked New Orleans Seminary for their faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. "For your work adds academic integrity and doctrinal reliability to our proclamation of the gospel," he said in the student response portion of the commencement.
"Thank you for your obedience in following the Holy Spirit into this penitentiary where few other missions have dared to come," he said. "After Paul's conversion, many were skeptical and would not associate with him, although the Lord had prepared him an encourager named Barnabas. It was he who helped Paul advance in the ministry to which God had called him.
"To us, you are the Lord's Barnabas," Stevenson said.
Jimmy Dukes, dean of the extension center system, said it was quite moving for him to sit during the graduation and remember the beginning of the seminary's efforts to get the program going. "The joy we were able to experience there was possible because of the cooperation of the officials at the prison, our own seminary people, the teachers who have served and the students who have worked so hard to complete the program," he said.
"As these trained leaders go out to serve within the prison walls, who knows what God will do to reach people for Christ and change lives," Dukes added. "To him be the glory!"
Thomas Strong said he was thankful for people throughout Louisiana who have supported this program and have given sacrificially of their time, as well as their financial means.
The graduation is a result of the tri-partnership between Judson Baptist Association in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and New Orleans Seminary. Applauding this partnership, Nelda Seal, Women's Missionary Union director and women's ministry coordinator for the state of Louisiana, came to the ceremony to congratulate the students. "We rejoice in our investment in your lives," she said, referring to WMU's assistance in paying for textbooks.
Michael Canady, strategy coordination director for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, summarized the Angola graduation in these words: "On this momentous occasion, we are seeing lives changing, all because of the gospel of Jesus Christ."