The first time I saw this t-shirt was a few years back when a group of students came back from Angola Prison in Louisiana. They had spent a week there with a colleague of mine whose heart is focused on ministering to the men who are imprisoned there, many of them for life.
I remember thinking that it was funny. I figured whatever else was true of Angola, the folks there had a curious sense of humor. A prison referred to as a “gated community”? Well, ok….I guess.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to spend a week in Angola Prison. What I found there was surprising.
I found community.
In fact, I found a 6,200 member community who are deeply involved in each other’s lives. There are ASE certified auto mechanics teaching others to fix brakes, work on engines, and do all those things that mechanics need to do. I found men taking care of the huge Percheron horses, standing behind these giant beasts saying, “now give it to me boy,” and watching the horse lift its rear leg for a new shoe. They filed the hoof, placed the shoe, and then filed the hoof smooth, taking pride in the beautiful end product. I joked with them that this was like watching a horse pedicure. They laughed.
I found men in school, seminary in fact, learning to love God and his word, preparing to minister to the other men in the various camps within Angola. And I found men gently tending to the needs of their dying brothers, violent criminals giving hospice care to men society had long since forgotten about.
The truth is I found community that was in many ways richer than most of the communities we live in, richer than many of the churches we inhabit each week. Most of these men are striving to live decent lives, to regain the human dignity they had forgotten about for a while. And they do this together, encouraging each other, helping each other, and holding each other accountable when they fail.
And some do fail. Some don’t make it. For those who are not interested in behaving, do not care to live in community, there is a cell where they spend 23 of every 24 hours. Human dignity, after all, includes a level of respect that holds members of the community responsible for their actions, rewarding success, and penalizing failure.
Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is community, a community shaped in no small part by the power of the gospel. I was blessed to be a part of this community for a week, to worship and interact with my brothers in Christ. I was enfolded and welcomed in a way that is rare on the outside. And I couldn’t help but wonder as I sat and rocked on my porch that overlooked the 18,000 acres that is Angola Prison, what church on the outside would look like if we dared to let the power of the gospel penetrate us deep down like it has this gated community nestled on the Mississippi River in Louisiana.