It was a cold, dreary, rainy day as we walked into the building that housed ‘death row’ at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, Louisiana. It was almost as if God was weeping over the many human choices that brought this place into existence.
I was at Angola with a colleague and a group of students. We had come to meet some of the men at Angola and learn about how God has been working within the prison walls. Our week to this point had been uplifting; unbelievable in some ways. We had worshipped with three different churches pastored by inmates. We sat in pews with convicted felons – murderers, rapists, violent criminals.
Human beings made in the image of God.
We had seen how the Holy Spirit has been working in the men of Angola. In this place where most would expect only darkness, we had seen men living as children of light. Grace will do that.
But now we were entering a place where any notion of hope seemed hard to imagine. Death Row. The name was on the front of the building.
85% of prisoners at Angola were serving life sentences without chance of parole. Yet many of them had relative freedom within the prison. No so on Death Row. These men are facing the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. They spend 23 of 24 hours of each day in their cells under heavy guard. One hour each day they may come out, shackled hand and foot. During this time they may exercise, shower, etc. – all within cages. This is a sad, seemingly hopeless place.
Yet, we were met by an inmate chaplain – Jerome – whose job it is too care for the spiritual needs of these men. I don’t think I have met a more cheerful, positive person. Of course he is a ‘lifer’ as well, although not the sort you find on death row. When we asked what he does with these men in this dark place, he said, “I love them.”
He showed us how he ‘does church’ with the men who are interested. Each man is led out, shackled hand and foot, to one of the ten exercise cages that are situated in a row outside the building. It was cold as we stood there but he said the men don’t care. Once in the cage their chains are removed through a slot in the gate. The men are then free to raise their hands and praise the Lord.
There, Jerome told us, in worship, these men are free. Maybe they know something the church on the outside doesn’t.