There is a special bond between Calvin Seminary and Angola State Prison in Louisiana. The relationship has been nurtured over the past five years through seminary students and professors going to Louisiana to meet other seminary students and professors several times a year, year after year.
Some Calvin seminary professors have been teaching inmates behind bars through the prison degree programs of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
But these inmates, some of whom were also seminarians, could never visit Calvin Seminary because most are serving life sentences. That is, not until a virtual visit was arranged through the expertise and special technology of Elmhurst (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church.
Linked by cameras and microphones, inmates who are part of the chapel of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary joined with the community of Calvin Seminary. Professor John Rottman welcomed the two faith communities as one body of worship.
From Angola, Gary Sumrall gave an opening reflection that set the tone for worship. It was taken from Numbers 11, recounting the grumbling of the Israelites who were sick and tired of manna and wanted some meat. “When we focus only on what God is not doing for us, we forget what God is doing for us,” said Sumrall. He prayed: “God, we are grateful for the ways you have lifted the yoke of oppression from Angola. Help us to be attuned to you and to follow.”
Worshipers in Louisiana and Michigan sang an old favorite hymn—“Jesus Paid It All.” The camera at Angola panned the faces of prisoners singing with strong voices. Students who had visited Angola a few months earlier with Professor Rottman recognized the faces of prisoner friends they had met, spotting Calvin T-shirts worn for the occasion by several inmates. As worshipers’ faces and voices were broadcast on large screens, the chorus took on deeper meaning.
Angola pastor Eric Matthews preached a sermon that was biblical, contextual, and authentic—all the marks of solid preaching that Calvin seminarians are taught. Referencing a text from Revelation 3 about the church at Laodicea being lukewarm, he drew a hearty laugh when he said, “We’re seminarians here—let’s see what the Greek says about this word ‘spit’.”
The service continued with a powerful testimony from an inmate who found at Angola the love he had been looking for his whole life. After recounting the downward steps that took him lower in life and deeper in despair, this convicted murderer declared, “Camp C in Angola showed me what love was all about. . . . I have a family that loves me—Jesus’ family.”
Worshipers were led in a closing song by Calvin seminarians who had just been to Angola three months earlier. Voices blended between Grand Rapids and Angola as worshipers experienced the bond of the Holy Spirit. It was a profound moment of unity in Christ that supersedes the barriers of prison walls. There is power in the name of Jesus . . . to break every chain.