A prison seminary largely funded by Arkansas Baptists at the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, a high security prison in Lincoln County, celebrated its first graduating class on Friday, May 12.
The 18 students, who are all serving life or long-term sentences for their crimes, donned graduation robes and caps as they accepted their bachelor’s degrees in Christian Studies from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. A 19th student, who had his sentence commuted in 2020 by former Gov. Asa Hutchison, graduated on the Mid-America campus in Memphis during their spring ceremony.
Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary President Dr. Michael Spradlin said the prisoners as students are very motivated. He noted their cumulative GPA was 3.8, which he called “astounding.” The 19 men are “fully students, fully graduates,” according to Spradlin, suggesting their degree was no different than those who studied outside the prison fences.
“For them, this is a chance to do something with their lives while they are incarcerated. It is a chance for them to contribute and make a spiritual difference in people’s lives,” Spradlin said.
Modeled after similar programs in other states, the program is the first in the state that has prepared graduates to assist prison chaplains as they counsel inmates inside prison walls. The Arkansas Prison Initiative, directed by Professor of Church History, Missions and Theology at Mid-America Seminary Dr. Mark Thompson, provides a unique opportunity to reach an oft-forgotten segment of the population with the Gospel.
“The program is designed to train prisoners to do ministry within the prison system. We were asked by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention to be the seminary involved in doing this in Arkansas,” Spradlin said. “Several other state prison systems had done this program and had been very pleased with the results, including Louisiana and Texas. … When we were approached, we looked at it and felt like it was something we could do. We felt it really fit our mission as a seminary, training missionaries and pastors. This is training a missionary within the prison system.”
With degrees in hand, the inmates can apply to the Division of Corrections’ Field Ministry Program, allowing them to minister to other inmates across the state.
“They serve under the chaplain and under the warden,” Bob Fielding, Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) consultant for chaplaincy and national/international missions, said. “Their duty is to do ministry and to help men, to teach men and to bring moral rehabilitation to the prisons.”
The idea for the seminary was birthed in the heart of several believers, including Fielding, former state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, former ABSC Missions Team Lead Bob Harper and Dubs Byers, retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Dumas, after learning about the impact this program had in prisons in other states.
Fielding said a study done on prison seminaries in other states, including the Louisiana State Penitentiary – once known as America’s bloodiest prison – showed prisons with this program experience a drop in acts of violence among inmates and against security guards as well as inmate suicide.
“Their hearts are changed and when their hearts are changed their lives are changed,” Fielding said.
And the hope is that the change will extend outside the prison walls as well.
“If field ministers impact the lives of men in the prison, then it is going to impact their families even though they are still in prison. The majority of people in prison are going to get out. So, if they have been changed, hopefully, the recidivism rates go down. This is way more than getting an education,” Fielding said.
Fielding related field ministers to international missions, describing them as “indigenous missionaries.”
“When our missionaries go to the field, they lead local nationals to Christ and train them to share the gospel and plant churches. So the reality is, for the most part, local indigenous people are planting the churches and sharing the gospel. I liken that to what is going to happen with the graduates that become field ministers. They have been trained to be indigenous missionaries. They speak the lingo of inmates. They wear the same clothes as their fellow inmates. They sleep in the same bed inmates do. They live the life that inmates do. They are indigenous missionaries. They are going to be received in a totally different way than a ‘free world’ person,” Fielding said. “I am not saying that free world people cannot have effective ministry in a prison. But these field ministers will have an automatic home court advantage because they are indigenous missionaries. They walk the walk, and they talk the talk.”
Arkansas Baptist State Convention Missions Team Leader Sam Roberts, who was present at graduation service with other ABSC staff, said he is grateful for the partnership they have with Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Arkansas Department of Corrections and Colossians 4:18 Prison Ministries to provide this incredible ministry opportunity. He is also grateful to the Arkansas Baptists who give generously to the Dixie Jackson Arkansas Missions Offering – the current primary funding for the ministry.
“It was incredible to sit there and see the joy and the fulfillment on the faces of the inmates and to know what God is going to do through their lives to transform the culture of the prison system in Arkansas,” Roberts said.
The prison seminary will be one of the ministries highlighted during this year’s Dixie Jackson Arkansas Missions Offering and Week of Prayer set for Sept.10-17.