Some of the Prison Ministries in the USA
Imagine an ideal setting for spiritual revival. Odds are good that the razor wire and guard towers of Angola prison, Louisiana’s infamous maximum-security penitentiary, don’t fit the bill. Yet spiritual revival is precisely what is taking place among the prison’s inmate population, most of whom are incarcerated for life.
‘Dr. John Robson [who heads the seminary extension programme inside Angola] believes that spiritual revival in the United States may begin in the prisons,’ Calvin Seminary Professor Ron Nydam reports. Nydam and Professor John Rottman have taken multiple trips to Angola with students. They have seen firsthand the difference the gospel makes in the lives of men who have lost hope.
‘At first I didn’t want to visit Angola,’ Rottman admits. ‘But it’s really an astonishing place.’ ‘You see that psychology is very inadequate in terms of explaining this kind of human transformation,’ Nydam says. ‘This is a God-thing. It’s very spiritual.’
Angola prison has a tough hundred-year history. The facility is the size of Manhattan Island and home to 5300 inmates carrying out life sentences. It’s a place where the ‘worst of the worst’ go and never come out. Inmates used to sleep with a magazine stuffed inside their shirts, their best defence against a 3:00 a.m. knifing.
That was until the mid-1990s, when Warden Burl Cain came to Angola. Cain’s conviction that moral rehabilitation is the surest way to recover a prisoner’s humanity has completely changed the culture of Angola over the past 20 years. Under Cain’s direction, New Orleans Baptist Seminary started offering Bible classes inside the prison. The programme grew, and today a full range of seminary classes is available to qualified inmates, complete with Greek and Hebrew. The incidence of prison violence has been reduced by 73 percent. The Bible classes led to the establishment of inmate-led churches. These worshipping communities are the heart of the prison’s transformation.
After experiencing Angola, Rottman began wondering whether a seminary would ever be allowed inside one of Michigan’s prisons. The student he talked with didn’t think so. ‘Michigan prisons are locked up too tight,’ he said.
‘Eight months later we got a pack in the mail,’ Rottman says. Eight inmates of the Handlon medium-security correctional facility in Ionia, Michigan, wanted to enrol in Calvin Seminary’s certificate programme in pastoral care. So Professor Ronald Feenstra wrote a letter to Handlon’s warden. His inquiry went unanswered for months. Then one day Feenstra spoke to the warden’s secretary, who arranged a meeting.
‘So we went down.’ Rottman remembers. ‘And the warden said, “You must have a lot of influence.” Feenstra and I thought to ourselves, “We don’t have any influence.” The warden said, “I got your letter, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Having a seminary teach a class in a prison is unprecedented in Michigan. Then the new director of corrections for the state came in. I said to him, ‘Dan, what do you want me to do with this letter?’ He scanned it and said, ‘Make that happen.’”’
And thus Handlon prison became a Calvin Seminary extension site. ‘Two or three weeks after that we taught our first class,’ Rottman says.
Now in its fifth class at Handlon, the programme is bearing fruit. A small group of inmates have established a Christian Reformed congregation inside the prison, pastored by Calvin Seminary alumni Andy Hanson. Hanson was a student visitor to Angola on Rottman’s first trip. ‘There are now about 50 people attending every Sunday,’ Rottman says.
These stories of fellow Christians, living as Christ’s church in the world through word and deed, inspire us for ministry in our own local contexts. They remind us that we’re not ‘in it alone.’ Jesus is indeed using his church as organism and as institution to bring hope and help for this life, and for the life to come.
Taken with permission from the Calvin Theological Seminary Forum, Fall 2013
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