Seminary in Prison: Alabama Inmates prepare to minister to others behind bars
A story of faith and forgiveness is unfolding at the Bibb County Correctional Facility.
Thirteen inmates with convictions ranging from rape to murder are now enrolled in a full time seminary.
Birmingham Theological Seminary operates the program that’s unlike any other in Alabama’s history.
Four days a week, the men are in the classroom taking a full course load from BTS. In two years, each will have either a Master of Arts and Biblical Studies or a Certificate of Practical Theology.
Wardell is one inmate in the program. He’s been in prison 16 years. He says his turning point for Christ happened once he was behind bars.
“When I was in the county jail crying out for God to save me and not only save me, but save the victim I was trying to hurt,” Wardell explained.
Now he spends his days studying God’s word. He calls prison a place where he is able to give God his full attention.
“I know I've been renewed in my mind spiritually and that's what I've been missing,” said Wardell.
When he finishes this two-year program, Wardell and the other graduates will be sent to prisons across Alabama to minister to those who may relate to their stories.
“I can identify with the hurt of man coming through these prison walls or men who have almost attempted to kill someone and they identify with it because I’m not going to try to hide anything because my past is my past,” said Wardell. “I can’t change it. I can’t erase it. My past has been forgiven by God and that’s what I want men to understand.”
John is also ready to use his story and new knowledge for ministry.
“My plan deals with bible studies,” John told ABC 33/40. “I really want to help the sex offenders and help deal with their treatments.”
Dr. Thad James is Vice President at BTS. He acknowledges some may have concerns about the inmates' reentry into society and plans for life in ministry.
“I see the changes of the lives in these men and knowing personally what they're in here for but also seeing their changed lives,” James said. “You can fake that. You can fool that. But only for so long can you do that. The truth is going to come out.”
James believes in this program and the future of these men.
“Sometimes you actually have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s not a dream,” said James. “It’s really a joy. It’s a blessing. It’s an honor.”
“It's helped me see there are people who actually care for the prisoner that are willing to help, that all is not lost, that we can change, that we don’t have to go out and commit crimes that we can actually change for the better,” said John.
“I kid with myself at times, I be like, what if they called me and said you can go home today. What would I tell the judge? I would say, well give me time so I can complete my class, then let me out,” Wardell said.
Dr. James says the program was modeled after ones in South Carolina and Louisiana, but the curriculum is very close to what is taught at Birmingham Theological Seminary.
Donations cover all the costs.
Inmates in the program had to apply, interview and be screened. Those chosen had to have at least seven years left on their sentence- two for the program and at least five more years to serve in the prisons.
This first class graduates next summer. Dr. James hopes to have the second class chosen and beginning classes by that same time.