If I told you there was a place where the church was growing dramatically—conversions followed by baptisms and discipleship, red-hot leadership development, and measurable improvements in the well-being of the surrounding community—and it was in North America, not Africa or Asia, you might not believe me.
If I told you it was happening in the nation's largest maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary, you wouldn't believe me. Given the prison's sordid history, which has inspired books and movies, including Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Green Mile (1999), it is indeed an unlikely story.
"It's truly a God thing," said Norris Grubbs, senior associate dean of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), which has administered a seminary training program inside Louisiana's penitentiary, known as Angola, since 1995. With an inmate population of some 5,200, 85 percent of whom are violent offenders, Angola is the nation's largest, and historically most notorious, prison.
But now Angola has a very different reputation, largely a result of the NOBTS program, called the Angola Extension, which has graduated 192 inmate ministers, as they are called, since it began 15 years ago.
Modeled after the seminary's Bachelor of Ministry degree, the Angola Extension is a 126-hour program operated year-round in the prison, fall and spring semesters, with lighter, modular courses offered during the summer.
The curriculum in this fully accredited Bible college is taught by a rotation of NOBTS and visiting faculty—Greek and Hebrew, pastoral care, preaching, biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and evangelism.
"We didn't have any idea what it would develop into—God has kept opening doors," Grubbs said. The goal of the program, to graduate a corps of educated inmate ministers, has been realized—all of them now busy ministering among Angola's huge prison population, and beyond.
America's bloodiest prison
Sixty miles north of Baton Rouge, Angola sits on a tract of land bigger than Manhattan, surrounded by the Mississippi River. First settled as a slave plantation in the 1800s, today the prison is home to men serving time for capital crimes. More inmates are serving life sentences here than at any prison in the country.
By 1994, when Burl Cain was appointed its new warden, Angola had a reputation as the bloodiest prison in America. Cain was determined to change that.
"Nothing happens in a prison unless the warden wants it to happen," Grubbs said, and what Warden Cain wanted, as he's said elsewhere, was moral rehabilitation. Cain also was obeying his mother, who had warned him before his first day at Angola: "You just remember one thing," he said she told him, "I raised you right—to know God—and God will hold you accountable one day. If you don't see that those prisoners have a chance to know Him, He will hold you accountable for their souls" (from Cain's Redemption: A Story of Hope and Transformation in America's Bloodiest Prison).
In September 1995 NOBTS accepted the warden's invitation to teach Bible classes inside the prison, even though the funding was uncertain, skepticism was high, and violence inside was still rampant.
John Robson, who has been the director of the Angola Extension Program from the start, also remembers inmate resistance to the program at first. "We had to earn our way," he says. To this day the program depends on donations and costs the state nothing.