Angola prison ministry celebrates 20 years, new facility

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Registrar Paul Gregoire talks with degree candidates prior to the commencement ceremony at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola on Aug. 27. (Boyd Guy)Celebrating a 20-year partnership that has changed lives and deployed "missionaries," New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary/Leavell College has dedicated a new facility with expanded classroom and library space at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

The Aug. 27 dedication followed a graduation ceremony marking the program's 278th graduate.

"This has been the most spectacular day we could ever have," said Burl Cain, warden of the correctional facility. "We have a new seminary building; we doubled our capacity; and, it means less victims of violent crime."

The Joan Horner Center, an 11,000-square-foot building with a computer lab, two classrooms, an auditorium and library, was named in memory of benefactor Joan Horner, founder of Premier Designs of Dallas, who with husband, Andy Horner, were longtime supporters of the Angola ministry. An anonymous donor provided funds for the structure.

James LeBlanc, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, echoed Cain's correlation between the program's success and a statewide drop in repeat offenders, crediting the work of 35 NOBTS "missionaries," graduates who asked to transfer to other Louisiana prisons in order to plant new inmate-led churches.

Jimmy Dukes, the NOBTS director of the prison program, said the new facility will help meet a great need.

"Other prisons and even some parish jail sheriffs want to have our missionaries," Dukes said. "To do that, we need to recruit more students and train more students."

The program offers the bachelor of arts in Christian ministry and non-credit certificate degrees. Dukes said the new space can accommodate twice the current enrollment and allows master-level coursework to begin.

Chuck Kelley, NOBTS president, looked back at the program's beginnings and noted that Cain and others who dreamed with him had the foresight to see its potential.

Cain, a former educator, approached leaders of the Judson Baptist Association, now named the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge, and seminary leadership and asked them to provide educational services for the incarcerated.

"They saw what God saw," Kelley said. "They saw that God could do a mighty work."

John Hebert, missions and ministry director at the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told the graduates that the 1,639 churches of the LBC stand behind them, supporting the program annually through the Georgia Barnette State Missions Offering.

The center sits adjacent to the 800-seat Tudy Chapel where Kelley reminded graduates and the packed house that God has experience handling problems bigger than any they face.

"It doesn't matter what the circumstances, when God looks at you, your past and your troubles, He says, 'Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt,'" Kelley said.

Kelley told the graduates that when seminary leaders wondered how they would fund the program, "God said, 'I fed 5,000 with one little boy's sack lunch.'" And when Hurricane Katrina's devastation put heavy demand on all available funds, Kelley said God's response was, "'This program is too important to stop for a minor little flood. If I can get Noah and his family through, I can handle this.'"

Kelley reminded the graduates that they were on their way to lives of "impact, influence and significance."

Politicians on "both sides of the aisle" are beginning to recognize that incarceration alone is not the answer and are seeing the impact the program is making, LeBlanc said. "It's amazing what's going on here."

NOBTS/Leavell College has active programs also at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, St. Gabriel, La.; the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Miss.; Phillips State Prison, Buford, Ga.; and the Hardee Correctional Institute, Bowling Green, Fla.

William Hall, an inmate who spoke on behalf of the graduating class, told the crowd he knew what Angola prison was like when Cain arrived. The prison was so known for violence that it was often called the "bloodiest prison in America."

"Warden Cain did something very few men are able to do. He let God in," Hall said. "Isn't it amazing what happens when Jesus comes in?"

Miguel Kelley spoke, urging his fellow graduates to stay grounded and maintain an intimate relationship with God. Paroled after serving more than 23 years of a 44-year sentence, Miguel now works as an account executive at a firm in downtown New Orleans.

"Work hard, with an urgency," Miguel Kelley said. "Seek God with a hunger and thirst."

Following graduation, guests toured the Joan Horner Center and its new library, the Charles S. "Chuck" Kelley Jr. Library. No one individual can be credited with the program's impact, Chuck Kelley said. "It's bigger than that."

At the dedication, Kelley shared his dreams for the center's future: $100,000 to begin the master's level certificate in worship ministry; a $1 million endowment to cover tuition cost for all enrolled in the Louisiana prison programs; and a $5 million endowment to establish the Center for Moral Rehabilitation to provide a voice within the national conversation for how to reduce the prison population and attain genuine rehabilitation.

"Where prison would be seen as a positive influence and a place of healthy preparation for reentering society," Kelley said of the program's mission, "it's not education alone, but a change of heart."

To read about NOBTS' program at Hardee Correctional Institute in Bowling Green, click here.

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