November 2011 – Ron Hicks is serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, but he is dead already.
“I can’t make decisions in my life anymore, because my life is not for me,” he said. “It’s for Jesus. Whatever happens to me and the other men who are in the Body of Christ here at Angola, I know that God is working to make us who He wants us to be.”
A 40-year-old inmate minister, Ron is 21 years into a life sentence for second degree murder. Like 85% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola, only a governor’s pardon can bring a release. There is no possibility of parole for a life sentence in Louisiana. The average sentence on “The Farm” is 88 years.
The blessed irony for Ron and hundreds of inmates at Angola is that God did not forget those condemned to human storage. Rather, He used a plain-spoken Southern Baptist warden and a children’s ministry to transform a pesthole of evil into a breeding ground of His grace.
New blood, new hope
The nation’s largest maximum security prison is not where one might expect to find congregations of men overflowing with hope and joy. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1995 when Burl Cain, a Louisiana native and former school teacher, became warden. At that time, Angola was earning its reputation as the bloodiest prison in America.
“It was barbaric. It was treacherous. It was every man for himself,” said inmate Keith Morse in a 2010 USA Today video. A convicted murderer serving a life sentence, Morse said that violence, homosexuality and illegal drugs were the norm.
Cain began looking for ways to bring order and morality to the violent, chaotic world of Angola and, at the same time, introduce the inmates to Jesus Christ.
What he found was the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. NOBTS was willing to establish an extension center in the prison. Inmates began to pore over the Scripture. That’s when everything began to change.
Men were being saved and sharing the Gospel with other inmates. Churches were forming. Inmate ministers were discipling their fellow prisoners and even guards. In turn, the morality that was required to establish a civilized prison society was emerging.
Codifying the change, one of Cain’s first edicts was a prohibition against profanity, beginning with the corrections officers. That simple rule had a major positive impact on inmate-guard relationships as well as on the prison society at large, according to Cain. He explained that cursing sets the stage for violence, while clean language fosters respect.
Cain also put in place a non-oppressive security system that offered great freedom for inmates coupled with quick and sure penalties that remove those liberties when even a minor infraction occurs.
Angola was changing as God was wedging the Gospel of Christ into the crevices of broken lives in every cell block. There was a new hope, a new purpose and a new reason to live.
At the same time, many of the young Christians were coming to grips with the damage they had done – especially to their own children. They yearned for the reconciliation God was already preparing.
Sons sans dads
Lyndon Azcuna was born in the Philippines. His father died when Azcuna was only five years old. By his own admission, he had no idea what it meant to have a dad or to be a dad. But that didn’t stop Azcuna from fathering a child at age 17, and then, from simply walking away.
Years later when things got tough in his own marriage, he again walked away. This time he left a wife and two daughters. But then God intervened.
“I will never forget that one night when I came to see my children,” he said. “They were all asleep. As I was looking at them, the Lord spoke to my heart. The Spirit was telling me this was the same pain and devastation I had experienced as a child.
“At that moment, my heart broke and I knew I had to break the cycle of pain and suffering in my own heart. I asked the Lord: ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Azcuna said God answered with this simple directive: “I want you to be the father I intended you to be.”
That divine intervention left him with a new resolve to fulfill his family responsibilities and a passion to encourage other fathers to do the same. In 2001 that passion turned into a vocation when he joined the staff of Awana Clubs International, the world’s largest children’s ministry serving churches worldwide.
But he never expected that his new job would send him to a maximum security prison.
Victims who won’t be
By 2003 at Angola, some 2,000 murderers, rapists and thieves had found forgiveness in Christ. Those new creations now yearned for the chance to simply say to their children: “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Some even dreamed of sharing the Gospel with their kids, and in the process, spare them from following in their father’s footsteps.
But few inmates knew anything about how to be a godly father. In fact, some had met their own absent dads on the grounds of Angola. They wondered: “How can a prisoner be a real father? Is forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Can God be that good?”
On behalf of the inmate fathers, Warden Cain was willing to ask those questions. And who better to ask than the experts: Awana.
Although Awana had a handle on children’s ministry in churches, there was no template that included the prison dynamic. Someone needed to research the needs, cast a vision and implement a plan – someone who could empathize with broken fathers and broken children.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” Azcuna said, “but I came to learn that this is what God had planned for my life from the very beginning.”
Azcuna took his ideas to Warden Cain. These included the creation of an event that would bring inmate fathers and their children together for the purpose of reconciliation. It would be called the Returning Hearts Celebration.
Warden Cain liked the new ideas from Awana. However, he had his own agenda that reached beyond even the inmates and their children.
“This is how I look at my career and what I do here,” he recently told a group of Awana volunteers. “When the day comes and I face the good Lord, if we have done something that just keeps one person from having a gun in his face, a knife at this throat or her body ravaged – just one person – then it is worth my whole life. … The magnitude of what you [volunteers] are doing is immeasurable, because you are touching people who could have been victims and now they won’t be.”
July 9, 2011, began as an overcast day at Angola prison, slightly cooler than the sweltering norm. Some 262 inmate fathers occupied the bleachers of the prison’s rodeo arena. Some gathered in small clusters; others sat alone. On the opposite side of the arena, volunteers in orange T-shirts welcomed over 600 children disembarking from a long line of buses and cars.
Neither prisoners, volunteers, staff members, reporters or even guards could hide the ocean of tears that threatened to flood in anticipation of that one moment when a father’s deep sorrow would be swallowed up in the joy of holding his children. The reunion would only last a few hours, but today, that would be enough.
A man with a microphone said some hurried words of welcome. Then he announced: “Douglas Stevens (not his real name), your son and daughter are here to see you!”
A solitary inmate broke out of the bleachers and sprinted toward the center of the arena, colliding into a knotted embrace with his children. The dam broke. Tears flowed for hours as the scene repeated itself several hundred times.
One-by-one, men became fathers again.
For many, the second opportunity at fatherhood began by finding a private space where they could pray with their children, seek their forgiveness and share Christ with them.
The remainder of the Returning Heart Celebration would be spent making enough memories to last a year – shooting hoops, bouncing on huge inflatable toys, riding horses and playing dozens of carnival games. They laughed, hugged and clung to each other. Each minute was a precious gift, and they knew its infinite worth.
Ministry of reconciliation
The Returning Hearts Celebration is not only a sacred day to the fathers of Angola, but it’s also the pay-off for an 11-month training program on fatherhood called Malachi Dads.
Another innovation of Awana, Malachi Dads instructs fathers in the areas necessary to be a responsible parent: Christian character, parenting, education, moral rehabilitation and vocational training. The Malachi Dads Pledge expresses the heart of the program, which is now in about 40 prisons across the nation:
As a Malachi Dad, I solemnly pledge to glorify God and build His Kingdom by prioritizing the raising of godly children, first in my family, then in the influencing of other men to do the same in theirs. I firmly believe that my transformed life in Christ – my life of integrity, pursuit of this vision and the pursuit of godly character – will allow me to impact my children, family and others toward this end. I will practice a life of daily discipline and dependence on God through prayer and the study of God’s Word for the wisdom in how to nurture my children in the admonition of the Lord. I will pursue this endeavor for a lifetime, whether my children are in my home or not. Finally, I believe that my end goal is not only for my children to walk in the Lord, but that this God-given vision would impact multiple generations to come. So help me God.
Right, but real?
The words sound right. The intentions seem noble. Or is the Angola revival really just desperate men trying to make their hopeless situation a little more bearable? Is it really just jail house religion?
“I’m not saying that we don’t have fakers,” said Kyle Hebert, serving 40 years for attempted first-degree murder – one of the few Angola inmates serving less than a life sentence. “But, let me tell you, it’s not easy to fake it in here. When you are around someone every day you are going to see the other side, especially when trials come. What I see are men growing in Christ in the midst of trials and living consistent moral lives.”
Inmate minister Steven Dominique agrees. “In regular society you can go to church on Sunday and Bible study on Wednesday evening, then return to your home and do anything you want,” he said. “But in this environment, when you say you are a Christian, all eyes are definitely on you.”
Dominique is a qualified observer to the before-and-after impact of the gospel at Angola. Since 1984, he has been serving a life sentence for aggravated rape and armed robbery. Unlike in the earlier years of his sentence, Dominique says he has often witnessed the fruit of the Spirit, particularly when conflicts crop up.
“There are often situations when hate, bitterness and turmoil could arise,” he said. “Maybe it’s because your family is not there for you or it could be something done by prison authorities. In those situations you really discover that a man has been born of the Spirit of God because in our own natural strength we can’t bring forth the characteristics of Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.”
As Awana began to develop its unique prison ministry, the organization created a separate division, Awana Lifeline, to oversee the Malachi Dads program, Returning Hearts Celebration and other efforts. To learn more about Awana Lifeline visit http://awanalifeline.org. The site contains a number of outstanding video presentations, as well as information about catching the Awana Lifeline vision as a volunteer, supporter or local prison ministry worker.
Burl, the Baptist
Like Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, Burl Cain prepared the way for God’s Spirit to work at Angola. Chaplain Brad DeLaughter reflects on Cain’s philosophy of discipline:
“He is an awesome warden, but he is a teacher at heart. That is what he was before he was a warden. He says he runs the prison like a kindergarten. Basically, he gives inmates a lot of freedom, but balances that with high accountability. Every infraction is treated as a major infraction that has major implications if we draw them out to their full extent.
“He doesn’t just punish a cell block or a field line. Instead of issuing a negative punishment, he just takes away a freedom – access to the hobby shop, phone or canteen privileges.”