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Despite prison terms, inmates display faith-filled, joyful lives

Fri, 19 Nov 2004 - 12:42 PM CST

Eugene "Bishop" Tannehill has been a resident of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1959. He entered the prison when it had the reputation as America's worst.

In those racially tense years, Tannehill -- who is serving a life sentence for murder -- was twice beaten almost to death. Back then few people, inmates or guards, stood against rape and violence.

Much changed for Tannehill in 1963, after an evangelist convinced him to repent of his sins and make Jesus his Savior.

"Satan had the bill of sale on this penitentiary when I arrived," says Tannehill, now a toothless, white-haired 70-year-old man.

But Tannehill served as a catalyst for transformation, preaching fiery sermons to his fellow inmates. Slowly, a few others asked forgiveness and came to faith in Christ. More volunteers brought the gospel to prison and the violence began to dissipate.

"The spirit of death began to run," says Tannehill, sporting a "Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people" T-shirt and a large silver cross.

After four decades of preaching and teaching, most everyone calls Tannehill "Bishop." He has garnered the respect of Christian and non-Christian alike because of his faithful stand. He can go virtually anywhere in the prison at any time for a spiritual pursuit. No guard is present as we talk in the parole board hearing room of the nation's largest maximum-security prison.

"God didn't give liberty in my physical body," Tannehill says slowly. "He did give me freedom to my spirit. A body in jail is better off than a soul in prison. I'm not living in a penitentiary. I'm living in Christ."

MASSIVE OUTREACH

Assemblies of God chaplain Russell Roseberry knows that not all prisoners in the Bayou State are Christians. In a huge logistical undertaking, Roseberry has recruited 1,400 volunteers from 13 states to minister in 22 penal institutions around Louisiana during the same three-day weekend in September. Roseberry, who is executive director of InnerFaith Prison Ministry in Lafayette, Louisiana, enlisted help from chaplains, pastors, former inmates and laypeople from 300 churches. The most ambitious outreach occurs in Angola, where volunteers include Assemblies of God National Chaplaincy Director Alvin Worthley and Louisiana Superintendent Douglas Fulenwider. Every inmate is serving at least 15 years at Angola and 90 percent won't live to see freedom.

Angola is located 25 miles from the nearest town. Tiny Baptist and Pentecostal churches as well as antebellum mansions with pecan-tree lined driveways dot the scenery nearby. Angola is known as "the Farm" because most of the food eaten by inmates -- from okra to watermelon -- is raised on its fertile 18,000 acres along a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Mississippi River.

InnerFaith volunteers minister in five living units inside the grounds through prayer services, celebration rallies and one-on-one evangelism.

CAIN MAKES HIS MARK

These days at Angola there are a plethora of religious opportunities, led by outside volunteers and inmates themselves. An estimated 1,500 of the 5,108 prisoners are born-again Christians, including 80 inmate ministers.

The spiritual transformation of the penitentiary has accelerated and intensified under the watch of Burl Cain, 61. In 1995, his first year as warden, Cain convinced New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to open a campus complete with college-level degree programs inside the prison. There also is a 24-hour Christian radio station on the grounds. The stocky, no-nonsense warden unapologetically describes the environment around Angola as "Bapticostal." He believes only the tenets of Christianity can improve the morality of inmates.

Cain is no advocate of segregating Christians into faith-based units. While outside volunteers can make an impression, the Christian inmates themselves must set an example. "It's up to prisoners to spread the gospel to other prisoners," Cain said.

By having inmates take control of their culture the prison is safer. Only 19 assaults upon staff had occurred this year by the InnerFaith weekend, compared to 443 the year before Cain arrived.

Cain runs a tight ship. Angola has well-groomed gardens. No cigarette butts litter the sidewalks. Prisoners -- and guards -- aren't allowed to swear.

Unlike many prisons, this one has a redemptive feel about it. Strolling through the prison yard, many inmates greet visitors with a friendly, "Hey, how ya' all doin'?"

Even death-row inmates need hope, and Cain, whose office bookshelf contains titles such as "The Purpose-Driven Life" and "Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul," has established a literacy program for the 86 inmates there.

At a Saturday morning breakfast with InnerFaith Prison Ministry volunteers, Cain recalls how his mother instilled in him the sobering truth that he is the last person on earth accountable for inmates' souls. Before a death sentence is carried out, Cain reads Romans 13:1-6 about submission to authorities and says a prayer with the prisoner.

Cain knows he can't reach all the inmates.

"I tore the fence down for you," Cain tells the volunteers. "It's up to you to enter their souls and change their lives."

SERVING IN MULTIPLE WAYS

In the prison yard Saturday afternoon under the blazing 95-degree sun, inmate Curtis Pratt shares how he gave his heart to the Lord a decade ago. He attended an evangelistic service solely because the speaker was female. Yet her message of how he could have eternal joy hooked him.

Pratt, 47, graduated from the seminary in 2002 and is now a Church of God in Christ minister. After he is released in early 2007, Pratt plans to earn a master's degree -- and then become involved in prison ministry.

"I know what people feel inside the walls," says the deep-throated Pratt. "A lot of hardcore prisoners don't believe people on the outside care for them."

Pratt has plenty of reason to be jaded. In 1975 he entered Angola for the first time and served nine years for robbery. He was out for two years -- during which time he fathered two daughters -- but has been back since 1986.

"I have never had a visit from any friend or relative," says Pratt, who is anxious to establish ties with his teenage daughters. "But I have the Solid Rock."

Pratt credits Tannehill as one of the early intercessors in changing the culture of the prison. "When I first came here Christians were viewed as sissies and cowards," Pratt says. "Now Christians aren't afraid to carry their Bibles."

Toby Guthrie, a Pentecostal preacher who has been here 11 of his 31 years, says Christians in Angola are scrutinized closely because after service they go to open dormitories rather than homes.

Guthrie attended Louisiana State University on a scholarship but ended up majoring in pot smoking, which led to a life sentence for second-degree murder. Guthrie attended seminary in prison and now leads two services and a Bible study each week.

VOLUNTEERS BLESSED

Many of the InnerFaith volunteers find their faith raised to a new level by the experience. Scott Holmes, 42, pastor of Abundant Life Assembly of God in Shreveport, senses that he had a divine appointment in praying with a death row inmate. The inmate, also from Shreveport, told him he didn't want his 12-year-old son to get caught in the same trap and end up in a 6-by-8-foot cell. In the course of conversation, Holmes discovered the name of the boy and recognized that he already was attending Sunday and Wednesday services via Abundant Life's bus ministry.

"I left that hallway with a new understanding of a Father's love for His children, regardless of where we've been and what we've done," Holmes says.

Ross Trahan, 47, a member of First Assembly of God in New Iberia, Louisiana, says he saw the body of Christ at a level he never witnessed on the outside.

"This experience opened up wells of evangelism in my life and heart," Trahan says. "I came here to what I thought would be a hopeless place and I saw hope."

Fareed Manchabali, a drilling fluids engineer who attends First Assembly of God in Metairie, concurs. "The saved ones in here have more freedom in the Lord behind bars than many on the outside," says Manchabali, 47. "They depend on the Lord for everything."

Fulenwider, who preached an opening night service, commends Roseberry for organizing the massive outreach. "Jesus instructed us to visit those in prison and it's an important aspect of ministry that the church must do," Fulenwider says.

FULL-CIRCLE REDEMPTION

At a Saturday night service, contemporary worship songs such as "I'm Trading My Sorrows" seem especially poignant.

Inmate David Chenevert tells a story of redemption. The son and brother of police officers, Chenevert caused no trouble growing up.

But at 21, he and his best friend got into an argument over an illegal drug transaction. He killed his best friend and his friend's girlfriend, who got in the way. Ultimately his father arrested him.

Chenevert spent 17 embittered years in prison before an evangelist convinced him of his need for Jesus.

Now Chenevert, who wears a nail-pierced cross necklace, is a student at the seminary. The always-smiling inmate has a joyful presence of the Lord despite no expectation of ever walking out of Angola.

Recently Chenevert, 46, has been corresponding with the son of the friend he murdered. The son, also a Christian and also a prisoner, has forgiven him of the killing. When the son is released next year he plans to visit Chenevert in Angola.

Chenevert expresses gratitude for the InnerFaith volunteers.

"I'm so impressed with their service," he says. "Just seeing their love and concern is a great encouragement."

As reports have trickled in from around the state after the outreach Roseberry's efforts are having a long-lasting impact. Around 200 inmates and guards accepted Jesus as Savior. A warden asked for prayer to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. And teams from churches formed to establish regular prison ministry outreaches.

"The body of Christ really showed up in this outreach," Roseberry says. "These volunteers helped move dozens of men from the prison house to the praise house."

Authors: John W. Kennedy

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