by Heather Stroobosscher, final year M.Div.
Whatever your expectations are, multiply them.” Professor Nydam met us at the airport at 5:30 a.m. January 13 to bless us and pray us on our way. We were thirteen J-termers eager to observe what God is doing at the maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana. Professor Nydam’s words foreshadowed what God would do over the next week: reveal in tangible form the celebrated Ephesians 3:20: “to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” At Angola Prison, this Scripture comes alive. Angola Prison is doing the unimaginable.
“You can’t be a hypocrite at Angola,” Todd commented as he articulated faith in action as a resident of the prison. We spent a morning with the chaplains, several men who had graduated from the seminary within the prison. We gathered to talk about faith and life and the calling of living as a follower of Jesus at Angola. Todd explained, “It’s amazing how someone not a Christian knows how a Christian should live.” We all chuckled. But to his point, anyone who proclaims a faith in Christ within the prison walls can’t just talk the talk; the 24-7 observation and accountability offers particular motivation to walk the walk as well. I thought to myself, I have the luxury of hiding my faith, of flying under the radar. They don’t. But is that a luxury at all? I wondered, are these men more free in their faith as prisoners than I am in my freedom?
The Lord hasn’t given me instruction concerning that.” I met Chuck before dinner one evening outside the Ranch House, where we were served three fabulous meals every day, often dining with other wardens and twice with Warden Burl Cain himself. Chuck has earned the status of “trustee,” an inmate with exemplary behavior and no disciplinary infractions who has been incarcerated for at least ten years. Chuck is a man of prayer who hungers for God and constantly longs to dig deeper into his holy Word. I asked Chuck whether he’d attended seminary. No. Was he interested? In a calm, measured, smooth response, Chuck let me know that God hadn’t directed him accordingly. I don’t believe my jaw fell open as I stood there taking in Chuck’s response. Why wouldn’t Chuck go to seminary? Because God hadn’t directed it. And Chuck was a man of prayer and obedience. God appointed Chuck, along with two other students, to pray over me when I learned I would be preaching that night. Chuck and Elaine and Kendra served as a team, united by the blood of Jesus Christ.
“Forty years ago, long before I was ever here, people were praying for change in Angola.” This was Anthony’s explanation for the changes he’d seen at Angola Prison. Anthony, a seminary student in the preaching class Professor Rottman taught while we were there, has been incarcerated at Angola for twenty-five years. He was there during the dark days when it was one of the bloodiest prisons in America, when inmates lived in bondage to other inmates, when men were being murdered in their beds. And Anthony is there now, twenty-five years later, living in a transformed prison. I’d heard various perspectives on the dramatic culture shift. Some give credit to the worship that takes place in the twenty-seven congregations within the prison that meet throughout the week. Others claim change points to the seminary’s presence over the past eighteen years. Still others credit the culture shift to Warden Burl Cain. Warden Cain, who refers to himself as the Benevolent Dictator, feels a responsibility for the men’s souls. But Anthony maintains that prayer preceded it all—faithful, hopeful prayer without ceasing. All of the above appear instrumental in God’s redemptive plan for his people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
“God gives me these ideas. I’m not that smart. It’s God who’s has done this.” We had the privilege of meeting with Warden Cain several times during our week. While a dynamic storyteller, Warden Cain is quick to give credit to God for all that’s going on at Angola. When asked what his hopes, dreams and plans for the future are—mindful of previous revolutionary additions like the hospice program run by prison volunteers, the seminary, the GED program taught by prisoners, the rodeo—his response is simple: “I don’t know. God has not revealed his plans yet.” I am struck by how the trustee Chuck and Warden Cain live worlds apart, yet in some ways they are not so different at all.
“Bless Warden Cain and his family.” During one of the worship services we attended, E.T., a cook we’d gotten to know at the Ranch House, was asked to close in prayer. In his prayer, E.T. thanked God for Warden Cain and asked God to bless Warden Cain and his family. An inmate led other inmates in thanking God for their warden. E.T. was living out 1 Timothy 2, spurring us on through example to go and do the same.
“Count!” In the middle of worship, in the middle of our meeting with the chaplains, in the middle of seminary class counts were ordered. As free as these men in sweatshirts and jeans seemed to us—men with contagious faith who articulate their theology artfully, who attend college, run libraries, tutor students, preach and lead worship, serve as missionaries, teach classes and have no guards in their dorms—we were constantly reminded they are incarcerated men, convicted criminals, each with a number that required a count, many with life sentences because of the nature of their crime. I kept forgetting. I kept seeing them as people loved by God, fellow travelers on a journey. But we were continually reminded. We were reminded.
“I was a stranger and you invited me in. . . . I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus.