Last fall a group from Calvin Theological Seminary visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. The group included six seminary students, professors Ron Nydam and John Rottman, and me, a recent graduate of CTS with a passion for prison ministry.
The prison is massive: its grounds cover 18,000 acres, and the buildings house 5,000 prisoners. It also has many unique programs, such as a prison rodeo and The Angolite, a magazine produced by inmates. One of the prison chaplains took the group on a tour that included a visit to the death chamber, where inmates are executed by lethal injection.
The visit to Angola focused primarily on the Bible college at the prison, which is an extension of New Orleans Baptist Seminary. Under the leadership of John Robson, it has experienced tremendous success. The power of God at work through the Bible college has dramatically transformed the prison culture.
Violence has been reduced by more than 70 percent since the Bible college started in 1995. Graduates find purpose in life by ministering to fellow inmates. Some become preachers or teachers. Others are sent in teams of two as missionaries to other Louisiana prisons. Those gifted in pastoral care offer compassion to people who are dying at the prison hospice.
During the visit, Nydam helped to equip the inmate students to administer pastoral care, and Rottman instructed them in preaching effectively. On the final day, author James Vogelzang joined the group, giving encouragement to the inmates with copies of his devotional book Doing His Time.
During the seminars the group interacted with students eager to learn. In the evenings, we attended chapel services at three different prison camps. We listened to an inmate preacher teach about temptation and were asked to participate by sharing our testimonies. Nydam reflected on how God had healed him of acute leukemia.
A highlight of the visit was lunch with the warden, Burl Cain, who was a January Series speaker at Calvin College in 2010. Cain said that most inmate education programs only create smarter criminals. Moral rehabilitation, he said, can best be accomplished by the church.
We were inspired and changed by the prison visit, and God is leading me to plant a prison church in the Newton (Iowa) Correctional Facility. God willing, New Life Prison Church will begin in January with the support of Classis Central Plains.