Manslaughter to Ministry: How Prison Ministries Model Christ's Heart for Us All
Robert Hyde, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a rough life growing up. He lived with his abusive step-father until he shot Robert’s mother, after which Robert moved in with a grandfather that did little to give the young man guidance. An existence defined by substance abuse and the occult eventually led to homicide when Hyde killed another man at a party in 2001.
However, as Brian Blackwell describes in his profile on Robert, his life began to change for the better while in prison. As Robert describes, “Because of my domestic violence history, I realized I had become the very thing I hated: a violent man. It broke my heart. I was completely ashamed and at the end of my rope.” As is often the case, that’s where God stepped in.
After asking the prison librarian for a Bible, he began to read and “the Holy Spirit let me know I had a father and was a son. Right there, I wept like a baby and learned who Jesus was. I was ashamed of who I had become but I knew I was forgiven.”
And though he was eventually given a thirty-five-year sentence for manslaughter, he was already a changed man.
Robert began to lead Bible studies at the various correction centers where he was incarcerated before eventually ending up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. While there, he started taking classes at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Extension. He earned his associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees through the program and was ordained by Grace Baptist Church in 2017 while serving as their associate pastor. He became their lead pastor in 2019 and served in that position until his parole a few weeks ago.
If you’re wondering how a prison inmate could serve on a church staff, it’s because Grace Baptist Church exists solely within the walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It’s thought to be the first Southern Baptist Church of its kind, though it seems doubtful that it will be the last.
Our callings are irrevocable
While Grace may be somewhat unique in its capacity as a stand-alone congregation, there are many communities of faith around the country that have found success in starting church plants within prison walls.
Dallas-based Gateway Church, for example, has several prison campuses throughout North Texas. They are one of many mega-churches that have found success replicating elements of their multi-campus model within jails and penitentiaries.
Stephen Wilson, who started attending Gateway while in prison and now serves as a minister at Gateway, describes how “We wanted to incorporate everything we have at a normal campus. It’s really given the inmates ownership, and it’s teaching them that their gifts and callings are irrevocable. God has called them and given them gifts that they can use in the church.” And that’s true whether that church is inside or outside prison walls.
This more holistic focus is, in many ways, the key to their approach. As Daniel Silliman describes, for many inmates it’s the feeling of “being treated like a fellow Christian” that helps the gospel feel real and relevant.
That was Stephen Wilson’s experience as well. He remembers how “It seemed like every ministry that came in was a big evangelistic ministry trying to win us all to Christ. We’re hearing the same message over and over.” Grant Doepel, who helped start a prison campus with his wife Kyla in 2011, notes that “The men and women on the inside, they have plenty of opportunities to get religion, but God speaks to us uniquely through relationships. We don’t want to just go in to do a service, but establish and grow a community of Christ followers.”
And that approach to evangelism is just as relevant outside of prison walls as it is on the inside.
Our calling is to a higher standard
As our culture becomes increasingly reliant on stereotypes to define large swaths of the population, it can be easy for Christians to follow suit. It’s just simpler, in many ways, to assume that what a person believes politically, where they live, or what they look like is a window into their soul and represents the whole of who they actually are. And there are times when those assumptions may be pretty close to accurate—after all, stereotypes usually exist for a reason.
We are called to a higher standard, though.
The gospels are replete with examples of Jesus defying stereotypes in order to give people the chance to show that they are something more. And while stories like the woman at the well (John 4) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19) may come to mind first, let’s not forget that each one of the twelve disciples also fits that mold. Whether they were fishermen, tax collectors, followers of a crazy man who lived in the wilderness, or relatively anonymous commoners, there was not another rabbi alive who would have looked at any of them and thought “that’s who I want to be the ambassadors of my message.”
But if we wouldn’t give Peter, Matthew, Andrew, or Thomas the chance to prove they are more than meets the eye, can we really say that we are following Christ’s example?
So whether it’s a prisoner serving a life sentence, the coworker with a political bumper sticker, or anyone in between, make it a point today to give people the chance to demonstrate that they can be more than our first impressions.
And remember that even if those first impressions turn out to be accurate, God doesn’t give us the option of assuming people can’t change. Who knows—maybe all they need is a chance, and maybe he wants to use you to give it to them.
NOTE: Our most recent podcast was funnier than usual. The Skit Guys dropped by to discuss their new feature-length film, Family Camp, which releases in theaters this weekend. We had a great time discussing the role of faith in the creative arts and much more with them. You can listen to it on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, but you may enjoy watching it on YouTube more.
Publication date: May 11, 2022
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Motortion
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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