Behind a guard house and fences, past a security checkpoint and through two remotely-operated gates, 22 students of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell College gathered May 23 for the last commencement ceremony of the seminary’s 2013-2014 academic year.
The students — all inmates of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman — received associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Christian ministry from Leavell College. Many were surrounded by family members and fellow inmate students, with representatives also on hand from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Mississippi Baptist Convention and New Orleans Baptist Seminary.
The May 23 commencement ceremony was the third held at Parchman since New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary launched a prison program there.
The ceremony, as all commencements do, celebrated each student’s educational accomplishments. And yet at the same time, the graduation service at Parchman also served both as a celebration of the new beginning in Christ each student had experienced and as a commissioning for ministry within the prison.
Academic achievements and new beginnings
NOBTS Provost Steve Lemke made it unmistakably clear to all present that they should be proud of the inmate students’ educational accomplishments.
“You have earned your degree. You have done exactly the same assignments and studied the same textbooks and done the same work as our students on campus have done,” Lemke said. “So if you’re getting a degree today, you have worked hard and you deserve the academic recognition you’re about to receive.”
That sense of accomplishment was definitely shared by the hard-working students.
“All my life, I’d been a quitter. I’d never finished anything,” said Donnie Russell, one of the graduates of the Faith Based Initiative, or FBI, program said of his life prior to entering the Leavell College prison program. “I said, ‘This is my last chance to get an education.’”
Russell said that, prior to the Leavell College program launching at Parchman Prison, he’d had people tell him he should attend seminary some day. He said he also heard the rumors prior to the NOBTS coming to Parchman that a ministry school was considering starting a program in the prison. On both occasions, Russell said he laughed at the thought. Later when he found out the program was coming to Parchman and that he’d been accepted, Russell said he felt like Sarah, who had laughed out loud when God promised her a son in her old age.
Everrett Welch, another student, told how he gave his life to Christ while in rehab. Between his time in rehab and the start of his prison sentence, Welch said he knew God was calling him to a life of ministry. He responded to that call during a church service knowing that he’d be in prison soon thereafter. For a while after he came to Parchman Prison, Welch set his call to ministry aside. Then one night while he was on night duty, Welch was praying and heard God say to him, “Have you forgotten about my call on your life?”
“I said, ‘God, if you still want me, you’ve still got me,’” Welch recalled.
Welch said he also told God that He would have to make a way for him to train for ministry, “because a correspondence course won’t teach me what I need to learn,” he said. It was a matter of weeks afterward that news of the NOBTS program starting at Parchman.
Welch delivered the student’s response during the commencement ceremony. He spoke from 2 Corinthians 5:17, which reads “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
“The word ‘passed away’ means ‘to die,’” Welch said. “In order for us to be the new man Christ has called us to be, the old man must die.”
Welch admitted that he is in prison because he was convicted of rape and that, when he first came to Parchman Prison, he was “a selfish individual who only though of himself.”
“But that has passed away,” he said. “Christ has completely forgiven me of my sinfulness, and I can honestly stand here and tell you today that I am deeply, helplessly and hopelessly in love with Jesus.”
He said Galatians 2:20, which says “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” has become his life motto.
He thanked the seminary faculty, prison officials and family members present for their influence, prayers and support. Welch then asked that they look on the inmates there who’d been through the program no longer as lawbreakers but “as forgiven, new, set apart, sanctified for His glory.”
Commissioned for ministry
New Orleans Baptist Seminary President Chuck Kelley then challenged the graduates to live out their calling each day as they minister in the prison.
“We came to train you. We came to put something in your heart and your mind. We came to give you some skill sets you didn’t have before you started this program,” Kelley said. “Why? Not so you could stand as a graduate of college, but so you could stand as a man who can change the lives of other people through the power of God.
“This is our prayer for you: That you would understand the mighty potential for your life, the amazing work you are capable of doing. The impact God can bring through you,” he said.
Kelley said many people viewed New Orleans Seminary’s prison programs with skepticism from the start.
“People though we were crazy when we started a seminary program in Angola State Penitentiary 18 or 19 years ago,” he said.
Kelley compared that sentiment to what people must have thought of Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 32, when God told him to buy a field outside Jerusalem despite the fact that the Babylonians were on the verge of conquering Israel.
“God told Jeremiah to buy the land as a testimony to the people of Jerusalem that God will keep his promise and God will bring this nation back,” Kelley said. “However impossible it may seem now, God can do anything.”
Kelley said seeing God’s potential in the midst of an impossible situation is like putting on glasses. He said, though some people may continue to look at the graduates for what they’ve done in the past, “We look at you with our glasses on.”
“We look at you through the filter of faith, and we know that in the hand of God, you are a mighty force for change and transformation,” Kelley said. “This is what we celebrate.”
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary currently has four prison programs that offer various degrees and certificates from Leavell College. Programs are in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel, the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga.