South of Houston in Brazoria County loom the imposing watchtowers of Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. And while the barbed-wire fences and armed patrolling guards may speak of hopelessness to some, there is a steeple and a cross and an amazing work taking place inside the Texas men’s prison.
On Monday, May 8, thirty four convicts became thirty four graduates. They had earned a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies upon completing a 125-credit-hour program courtesy of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But they didn’t just earn a degree. They also earned the opportunity to improve the lives of others.
At the graduation ceremony, TDCJ Director Bryan Collier had encouraging words for the inmates and their families.
“Your life experiences combined with your faith and education have prepared you for a unique mission field,” said Collier. “We’re excited to see the changes that happen in your life and in others. Graduation is not the end, but just the beginning.”
Indeed, just as Christ sent his disciples out to all nations, these graduating inmates will go out to other Texas prison facilities. There there they will serve as field ministers; witnessing, praying for, and serving their fellow offenders.
The majority of these ministering inmates will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
The path ahead of them is one fraught with challenges, but challenges that they are uniquely equipped for. They will be tasked with greeting new inmates as they arrive off the bus, counseling those struggling to accept lifetime incarceration, leading Bible studies, and ministering to inmates in hospice care who are dying. They will counsel those inmates contemplating suicide, and pray with those boarding buses to a second chance in the free world.
“It’s a great opportunity to do something,” said 47-year-old Kasaan Johnson, who has served 11 years of his 50-year sentence for aggravated robbery. “It gives you the tools to give back to the prison population.”
“Sometimes, when you’re in a miracle, you don’t see the miracle,” Patrick said, speaking directly to the graduates from the pulpit of the prison’s chapel. “You all are miracles.”
This incredible program is sponsored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Southwestern Seminary, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and the Heart of Texas Foundation. It is offered at no cost to taxpayers, and funded through grants and donations.
On Monday, Senator Whitmire said the Darrington program has been so successful that plans are underway to expand it to the women’s prison unit.
“Sometimes, when you’re in a miracle, you don’t see the miracle. You all are miracles.”
— Dan Patrick, at Darrington Prison
And while Monday’s graduates may well be miracles, they are not the first such miracles to walk the stage at Darrington prison’s chapel. In fact, this is the third class of graduates since the program’s inception in 2011. Today, over 100 prisoner ministers are serving in facilities across the state. Over 185 inmates are currently enrolled, professing faith in Jesus Christ and working hard to earn their degrees so that they can minister to others.
During Monday’s graduation ceremony, Southwestern Seminary President, Paige Patterson, delivered a message of hope checked with a heads up. Speaking from Acts 23:12-24, he reminded the graduates that as ministers they will face adversity. He exhorted them to remember that God will use them powerfully.
As Patterson handed each graduated their diplomas, some smiled and waved to loved ones in the crowd. Others raised their diplomas triumphantly in the air. Many of these men are the first in their family to earn a degree. For them, becoming a field minister means being a living demonstration of God’s sanctification; a testament to their children and their loved ones of Christ’s power to change lives.
After the ceremony, the new graduates walked across the hall and into the prison gym. There they huddled in prayer with other seminary students who they will now mentor and minister too.
Senator Hancock reminded inmates that the Apostle Paul was a prisoner when he wrote his portions of the Gospel. He encouraged the inmates to be bold, and spread the good news of the Gospel no matter where they are.