Arkansas Baptists, in partnership with Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee recently helped launch a brand-new prison seminary at the Varner maximum security unit. The primary educational goal of the Arkansas Prison Initiative is to train long term inmates and “lifers” to serve as lay ministers under the ADC prison chaplain. The College at Mid-America (CAMA) offers these men a chance to receive an undergraduate degree that equips them to minister in the place that has become their home.
The prison seminary provides a unique opportunity to reach an oft-forgotten segment of the population with the Gospel. As believers we know that God can reach anyone, anywhere, even behind the walls of a maximum-security prison. Just as God saves and calls students during a week of church camp, He can also save someone serving two life sentences and call him to serve in the Gospel ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This verse serves as a backdrop for Kevin’s* story.
Kevin feels called to the music ministry. He is serving as the director of a church band while studying to receive his BA in Christian Studies from the College at Mid-America. But Kevin is not your typical seminary student. Everything about his life journey is very different than that of most worship leaders.
Kevin grew up going to church in a small Arkansas town. At age 13, his family moved to Hot Springs. He stopped going to church and started running around with friends instead. He spent a lot of time out on the streets where he “just let the world raise me, instead of my parents.”
Kevin lost his father to an automobile accident in 1986. His stepfather was an alcoholic who abused Kevin’s mother. Unable to take the alcoholism and abuse, Kevin moved out of the house at age 17. He spent a few months living with friends while he finished his senior year of high school. Just two months away from graduation, he was involved in a double homicide that resulted in him receiving two life sentences. This was in 1992. He’s been incarcerated now for 28 years.
Kevin remembers when he was first locked up in the county jail. He was at the darkest moment of his life because of choices he had made. Everything he had ever known was gone and he was all alone. It was at this moment though, in the midst of deepest despair, that Kevin says God met him. In March of 1992, Kevin gave his life to Christ there in the middle of a jail cell.
Kevin believes that God has had His hand in Kevin’s life throughout his entire time in prison. During his first year in prison, he was assaulted by seven people at one time and severely injured. In another incident only a year later, while struggling with the chaos of prison life, he was stabbed three times. And yet, Kevin knows God has always kept him centered. “I can remember waking up a week after going into the ICU and I had peace, knowing I was going to be alright, believing God still had a plan for my life.”
The daily realities of prison life eventually got the best of him and Kevin strayed from God for a couple of years. Survival became his ultimate goal. He says, “I began trying to figure out how to serve two life sentences in prison, by any means necessary. If you can think it, I probably did it or was involved in it in some way.”
Everything changed in 2002, while he was serving time at Arkansas’ Tucker unit. He became involved in a program offered through the prison chapel called Kairos. Kairos is a Greek word meaning “God’s special time”. He says God used the Kairos program and this “special time” to make a permanent change in his life. At that point, he rededicated his life to Christ. Kevin says, “I can honestly tell you, that for the past 18 years, my life has never been the same.” He says God has blessed him with a talent he never knew he had. God has given him a talent for all things musical and he can now play almost any instrument. He doesn’t know why God chose to bless him this way, but he says, “From that time on, I’ve always been involved in the church in some way, usually in the music ministry.”
Kevin credits the CAMA program and Director Mark Thompson for helping him grow and helping to open doors that he never thought were possible. He says he has always had a desire for higher education but didn’t think he would ever have the chance to achieve that dream. Even though he had been able to take part in some Bible studies, Kevin says these were “mostly surface level.” He says there have been little to no avenues for in-depth educational ministry until now. “The CAMA program has really changed my life. It has really taken me to another level in my ministry and what I’m able to do, what I feel comfortable doing, what I’m confident doing, for God.”
Kevin’s role as music minister extends beyond leading and playing in the worship band at the prison. He says that as a music minister his job is to minister to others. He says there are situations where people will reach out to him rather than the chaplain because of their connection with music. That’s another reason CAMA is so valuable. “If the music minister only knows the key of G and doesn’t know scripture or he doesn’t have a foundation in counseling, or whatever, then he’s going to be ill-equipped to really help that person that’s reaching out to him.”
Ultimately, Kevin knows that God has called him to make disciples. He says the CAMA program has provided the opportunity to do that from the very beginning. With only 24 students in the program, there were not enough men to fill the entire barracks. As a result, half of the barracks was filled with non-CAMA inmates. Kevin says the first ministry goal is to change the barracks in which he and the other CAMA students live. Once they have changed the barracks, they will eventually be able to change a greater area of the prison. With that approach, Kevin envisions God using him and his classmates to change the Varner prison and ultimately the other prisons around the state.
“It’s just like the 12 disciples. We’re starting off with 24 students and eventually, where the disciples flipped the world upside down, we’re hoping to be able to flip prison upside down.”
*Name has been changed