ST. GABRIEL, La. (BP) -- Fifteen women prisoners earned associated degrees in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's winter commencement at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, La.
The seminary's Leavell College issued the associate degrees in Christian ministry Jan. 14, marking a significant milestone in the development of the certificate training program launched three years ago as a pilot.
The program at the women's prison is the seminary's first effort to provide training for female inmates. Nineteen women inmates graduated with ministry certificates in 2012. Now 15 inmates are one step closer to receiving fully accredited bachelor's degrees.
The women's prison program followed in the footsteps of three other successful NOBTS programs for male inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., and Philips State Prison in Buford, Ga.
The ceremony was held in the prison's chapel, under the watchful eye of prison guards and security cameras. Nestled deep in layers of fences topped with razor wire, the chapel stands as a symbol of hope and freedom, amid the harsh reminders of these women's lives. In the midst of these hard realities, the program is offering a new reason to hope.
The prison houses almost 1,100 inmates, and as the state's only women's facility, LCIW is home to minimum-, medium- and maximum-custody offenders. The average NOBTS student at LCIW is a 47-year-old mother serving a life sentence, said Kristi Miller, LCIW program director. Most of the women in the program have been in prison for more than a decade.
Miller plans for the graduates to lead weekly Bible studies and worship services in the lock-down area of the prison after they earn their bachelor's degrees.
Prison warden Jim Rogers has seen dramatic changes in the incarcerated students.
"It is amazing to see the growth and confidence in these ladies," Rogers said. "At first, they were hesitant to do anything we asked of them. Now they volunteer immediately with great confidence. That is so good for our system."
Attending the commencement were NOBTS professors and staff members who worked to establish the program at LCIW and served as teachers. A few family members and friends of the graduates also attended.
In his graduation address, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley gave examples of women who made a great impact for the Kingdom of God. His list included his late mother, Doris Kelley, and the women Scripture includes in the genealogy of Jesus.
When his mother moved to New Orleans as a senior adult, Kelley said, she knew very few people. As she met new people, she began sending encouraging notes and cards, significantly impacting her community.
"What difference can one woman make?" Kelley asked. "We have not taught you things to make you look smart. We have taught you things to give you tools for life and ministry. What are you going to do with the tools that you have? Because whatever circumstance you face, whatever abilities you have, whatever is a part of your life, we serve a God who is so great He is able to make you a woman of influence and impact."
Kelley mentioned the genealogy of Christ recorded in the book of Matthew. For the most part, the genealogy lists fathers and sons, but also mentions Rahab, Bathsheeba and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kelley used the passage to issue a challenge to the graduates.
"What in the world is God going to do with you? How are you going to affect the other women in this facility? How are you going to affect your family and friends on the outside as they see you, as you write to them? How are you going to affect the people who work around you? How are you going to affect what happens if the day comes when you walk out of this place?" Kelley asked.
"We have given you the tools; God has given you the calling," Kelley said. "Now let's see, what does God have in mind for one more woman?"
Kelley's wife Rhonda, a key architect of the program, sees God at work in the prison.
"God is truly at work in the lives of the NOBTS students at LCIW. Each student has demonstrated consistent personal and spiritual growth in the last two years," she said after the service. "They are confident in their faith and committed to their ministries on the compound. God is truly redeeming them to impact the culture at LCIW and their families outside."
Carissa Crowley is a communication specialist at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Gary D. Myers, NOBTS director of public relations, contributed to this report. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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