ST. GABRIEL, La.—Leavell College at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) celebrated the first associate degree graduation in its program at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) January 14. Fifteen women received associate degrees in Christian ministry during the commencement service.
The graduation marked a significant milestone in the program’s development. Launched on January 12, 2011 as a pilot, certificate training program, the LCIW program followed in the footsteps of three other successful NOBTS prison programs. The first three programs, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., and Philips State Prison in Buford, Ga., focused on training male inmates. The program at LCIW is the seminary’s first effort to provide training for female inmates. Nineteen LCIW inmates graduated with ministry certificates in 2012. Now 15 inmates are one step closer to receiving a fully accredited bachelor’s degree.
The ceremony was held in LCIW’s chapel, under the watchful eye of prison guards and security cameras. Nestled deep in layers of fences topped with razor wire, the chapel stands as a symbol of hope and freedom, amid the harsh reminders of the situation these women are in.
LCIW houses almost 1,100 inmates, and as the state’s only women’s facility, it is home to minimum, medium and maximum custody offenders. According to Kristi Miller, director of the LCIW program, the average NOBTS student at LCIW is a 47-year-old mother serving a life sentence. Most of the women in the program have been in prison for more than a decade. In the midst of these hard realities, though, the program is offering a new reason to hope. The prison’s warden, Jim Rogers, has seen dramatic changes in these women.
“It is amazing to see the growth and confidence in these ladies,” Rogers said. “At first, they were hesitant to do anything we asked of them. Now they volunteer immediately with great confidence. That is so good for our system.”
In attendance to celebrate the graduation were NOBTS professors and staff members who worked to establish the program at LCIW and have offered Christian ministry training for the inmates. A few family members and friends of these graduates were also there to celebrate and support them on this special day.
In his graduation address, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley gave examples of women who made a great impact for the Kingdom of God. His list included his late mother, Doris Kelley, and the women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.
Kelley said that when his mother moved to New Orleans as a senior adult, she knew very few people. As she met new people, she began sending encouraging notes and cards. Through simple words of encouragement, she made a significant impact on her community.
“What difference can one woman make?” Kelley asked, “We have not taught you things to make you look smart, we have taught you things to give you tools for life and ministry. What are you going to do with the tools that you have? Because whatever circumstance you face, whatever abilities you have, whatever is a part of your life, we serve a God who is so great, He is able to make you a woman of influence and impact.”
Kelley mentioned the genealogy of Christ recorded in the book of Matthew. For the most part, the genealogy lists fathers and sons, but it also mentions Rahab, Bathsheeba and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kelley used the passage to issue a challenge to the women at LCIW.
“What in the world is God going to do with you? How are you going to affect the other women in this facility? How are you going to affect your family and friends on the outside as they see you, as you write to them? How are you going to affect the people who work around you? How are you going to affect what happens if the day comes when you walk out of this place?,” Kelley asked.
“We have given you the tools, God has given you the calling,” Kelley said. “Now let’s see, what does God have in mind for one more woman?”
Rhonda Kelley, the wife of NOBTS president and one of the key architects of LCIW program, sees God at work in the prison.
“God is truly at work in the lives of the NOBTS students at LCIW. Each student has demonstrated consistent personal and spiritual growth in the last two years,” she said after the service. “They are confident in their faith and committed to their ministries on the compound. God is truly redeeming them to impact the culture at LCIW and their families outside.”
As program director, Kristi Miller has big plans to help these graduates impact LCIW by serving in the lock-down area of the prison. The students currently visit the lock-down area on a weekly basis to provide spiritual encouragement, but after they finish their bachelor’s degrees, Miller plans to launch weekly Bible studies and worship services led by program graduates.
With reporting by Gary D. Myers
Carissa Crowley is a communication specialist at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.