Archive for January 13th, 2010

January 13, 2010

The God of Angola

I will never forget hearing the click, click, click of those gates closing behind us. We started walking down a long sidewalk with buildings dispersed to the east and west of the sidewalk. Inmates were huddled in groups. In one group three guys, in other seven guys and others  in-between. Each group making way for the guard who led our way. Each inmate with eyes that shone with pride or defeat, anger or sorrow. The overwhelming majority of them with no hope of parole – ever. We had entered into Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States.

I remember wondering silently to myself about the wisdom of my choice of ministry. A sense of vulnerability lasted for a time, but elapsed as I witnessed God work around me. Perhaps you have heard of the wonder of what has occurred within the confines of Angola. I was reminded recently when I saw that John Piper had visited there a few months ago via Challies Dot Com. You can listen to their Q&A session with him here.

If Angola sounds familiar it is probably because Billy Cannon works there. But there is a greater story than Cannon at work within those gates. If you want to see the mighty hand of God at work on the soil of America than look no further than this former plantation turned prison. The Mississippi surrounds three sides of this 18,000 acre prison, but 100% of it is experiencing the love of God. My first day an inmate asked me what percentage of the city I lived in (N’awlins at the time) was presented the gospel every year? I said I didn’t know. “10%, 30%, 80%?” He asked. “I don’t know.” “Well, in Angola every prisoner hears the gospel at least three times a year. We are the only place in the United States where a 100% of a population is evangelized.” With over 5,000 inmates this is something. I know towns of 300 that can’t boast such a claim.

But prior Warden Burl Cain coming to Angola, it was an entirely different prison. If not the bloodiest prison in America it was close. Inmates would sleep in groups in the barracks, taking turn standing guard over their sleeping comrades. They would stuff their shirt with newspapers and anything else they might find that could make a stab wound non-fatal. But Warden Cain’s first watch over a death sentence changed everything. Realizing the value of a man’s soul he reached out and made in-roads for Christian ministry in the prison. You can read an account here.

Approaching New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, an extension center was created to educate prisoners in ministry. But this was only the beginning. Prisoners would get their theological training and become missionaries – to their fellow prisoners. They would change cell blocks to become pastors among the populace. When I taught at Angola for the seminary there were prisoners who upon graduation were to become missionaries to other prisons.

It was a change of the grandest scale. Men who were considered the worse kind of criminals becoming men who willingly took risks unimaginable to us outside a prison’s walls in order to further the gospel message. I had a living example in front of me every week as I taught Hebrew. There was a ragin’ cajun with neo-Nazi tattoos on almost every inch of his body. Next to him was his best friend – a Jew. They were inseparable and two of the gentlest souls you will meet. The gospel did that. I asked them to explain the change one day. The former neo-Nazi said “The only explanation is the power of the gospel. If you want proof of the power of the gospel then look no further than Angola. Man cannot explain this.” There was another inmate who confided in me in-between classes one day how much he loved to look outside the widow. “How far can we see do you think? 200, 300 yards?” he asked. ”I guess so. Why do you like to see beyond the fence.” His response, “You don’t know freedom till you realize how trapped you are. Once I was in isolation because I was a danger to all the other inmates. They had no choice but to keep me confined. In there I could see nothing. No windows low enough to look out. In there God taught me about the reality of sin. Everyday as I walk among the other inmates and look around and see the world I am reminded of what real freedom is – it is not out there, but in here.” He was pointing to his heart.

The results of Warden Cain’s initiatives are a dramatic decrease in violence and an up swell in the inmates’ moral. When I was there another ministry made a visit during the weekend and gave out free books. I thought to myself, “They are riding our coattails.” But it wasn’t true. The change in Angola isn’t due to NOBTS, other committed ministries in Angola or even Warden Cain. To be sure God has used each mightily. The change comes from the grace of God. God is at work. Can you imagine that tonight there will be multiple men going from bed to bed or cell to cell. Many of them could say of their lives that they never knew love, or a nurturing touch. Their past was a mural of violence, hatred and abandonment. They knew no haven or sweet caress from a parent. All human interaction was suspect. Sleep a time of vulnerability and crying a sign of weakness. But tonight, they go to be what no one ever was for them. To reach and touch and love and weep for those with whom they live. The epitome of the gospel being lived and the glory to God being given.

Thank you Lord for letting me be a witness.