God is at work at America’s largest maximum-security prison. So much so, that the Inmate Ministry program at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, has its own seminary; training up bi-vocational pastors to serve within the prison walls.
Drawing from several years of extensive research, Professor Byron Johnson reports on the Angola Seminary Program, including a hospice and counseling ministry that is solely led by inmates.
“It’s a whole wing where you have elderly inmates that are dying of various kinds of illnesses. There are maybe 3 prisoners per month that actually die at Angola and guess who does the funerals? The inmate ministers that are trained at the Bible College.
“They do grief counseling, then they have the hospice ministry and many other kinds of ministries taking place within the prison itself.”
Professor Johnson reflects on statements made by a number of professors who work directly with inmates on developing their perspective roles in prison.
“A number of the professors at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that provide the education have said,
‘These guys provide us a model of what the church really should look like outside the prison.’”
Angola provides a variety of chapel services so inmates are free to attend services that are specific to their spiritual practices and beliefs.
“They have these 29 different congregations in the prison; they’re from different denominational perspectives all over the place; Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, etc. and it’s the most ecumenical environment you can imagine because so many of these people share different chapels.
“You may worship at a Presbyterian Church on Monday night, but then on Tuesday night you’re worshipping at a Methodist church. Not everybody does that, but plenty of these inmates actually go to different churches and support those other churches. I don’t know how many people attend multiple churches and get along well with each other as they do here.”
An important mission of the Angola seminary, is to train inmates in the word of God and acts of service.
“It’s an incredible, thriving kind of religious economy in the prison where people are free to be religious. These guys get training both in the congregations and in the Bible College, and then they are free to serve other people.”
Professor Johnson says the Angola’s mission statement for Christian inmates can be summed up to, ‘Serving Life by Dying to self.’ He elaborates on how inmates practice and apply biblical principles to their everyday life.
“These guys literally give their lives away. These guys actually tithe in the prison. They tithe to other inmates that are indigent. That may be a real head scratcher because all of these guys are indigent, but sometimes they’ll tithe things like toothpaste to another inmate that doesn’t have a toothbrush or toothpaste.
“It’s just remarkable the kind of change that we’ve been able to document.”
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. He is the founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, as well as director of the Program on Prosocial Behavior. He is recognized as a leading authority on the scientific study of religion, the efficacy of faith-based organizations, domestic violence, and criminal justice.The Angola Prison Seminary