Kevin J. Brown: Training Inmates for Ministry Inside Maximum Security Prisons

The Billy Graham Center and Lausanne North America host strategy groups which bring together key catalysts and leaders in select areas of mission and evangelism. One of these groups is the Lausanne Correctional Leaders Group. Kevin Brown serves as a member of this group.

Maximum security prisons, although located inside the United States, are a world apart, and are akin to a closed mission field.

The barriers enacted to ensure security are much like the prohibitive borders of a foreign country, preventing outside access to a world radically different from the one beyond the walls. Furthermore, the culture of prison is an alien one, replete with foodways, folkways, language, and behavioral expectations that define an alternative way of life requiring years of acclimation before one can begin to understand the unique challenges faced by the incarcerated.

Although the church is called to minister to the prisoner (i.e. Matt. 25:31-25 and Heb.13:3), accessing them is no easy feat. There are forms to be completed, security screenings to pass, guards at the gate and throughout the cellblocks, and a host of security features that limit in-depth relationships.

Once inside, the amount of time and access is limited, and understanding prison culture in a sufficient manner to translate the gospel into the inmate’s context can take years. In short, fulfilling the call is difficult for those entering from the outside.

Taking a cue from contemporary missiology, Christian universities and seminaries have begun envisioning a new way of reaching those inside such closed worlds.

Missiologist Ray Bakke has long contended that the ideal way to reach an indigenous population is not to import foreign missionaries, but rather to train and equip local leaders for the task. This way, the steep learning curve of acculturation is bypassed. Those who already understand the unique vagaries of life inside an alien culture already have many of the skills required to reach their fellow citizens, lacking only the training in gospel ministry.

In 1995, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was invited by Warden Burl Cain of Angola Prison to begin such a training program. Once known as “The Bloodiest Prison in America,” Angola is built on an 18,000-acre property and houses 5,100 inmates on a massive campus that once was a plantation.

Cain envisioned a cadre of inmate ministers who could act as mentors and ministers who live and work daily inside the prison. Not hampered by the limitations imposed on missionaries from the outside, these men would have 24-hour access to the cellblocks. Many were lifers, which in Louisiana usually means without possibility of parole, whose entire lives would be spent dedicated to the work of sharing the gospel.

Because these men were already acculturated to prison life and understood the unique needs of others in their milieu, they could begin quickly and work efficiently.

And they were effective. In the intervening years the 308 graduates of the program have planted 30 churches inside Angola. There are 170 inmate ministers who act as “social mentors” paired with the newly-incarcerated to help them acclimate to prison life via conflict resolution, counseling, and sharing the gospel.

Pairs of graduates were sent to other Louisiana prisons to replicate the work there and to refer future students to the Angola Prison Seminary.

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Source: Christianity Today