- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

In some ways, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension-center graduation mirrored many other seminary graduations.

It included singing, prayers, a sermon and the recognition of God-called ministers. Proud families and friends shared in the joyous occasion. The 28 men receiving undergraduate degrees even wore caps and gowns. But this was no ordinary graduation, and these were not ordinary graduates.

This ceremony was held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, and the grads wore striped prison pants under their gowns. Nineteen of the graduates are serving sentences of 25 years or more; 13 of those have life sentences.

Many of the graduates will never experience a life outside the walls of Parchman, but as trained ministers, they are better equipped to reach their mission field - Parchman prison.

One smiling graduate, Tommy Smith, said he has found new purpose in helping others during his time as a student. In his ministry to others, Smith himself has been changed.

“Ministering to other people is something that brings out the best in me,” Smith said. “That’s something I didn’t understand until God got ahold of me and changed my life.”

Smith said the seminary training program has given him the skills he needs to minister to others and has provided him opportunities to share his faith.

In his charge to the graduates, seminary President Chuck Kelley noted that the ceremony did not signify an end or a completion, but a commencement, a beginning.

“It is not just what you have finished that we are recognizing; it’s what you are about to do and what lies ahead that has such great significance,” Mr. Kelley said.

The program at Parchman is modeled after a program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The Angola extension started 13 years ago, when Warden Burl Cain approached the seminary about the need for educational opportunities at the prison.

The seminary began by offering a nationally accredited associate degree in ministry in 1995, and the program was expanded in 1997 to include an accredited bachelor’s degree. Since the start of the program, Angola has seen a significant drop in prison violence.

Mr. Cain, who served as the guest speaker for the commencement, challenged the men to “be humble and don’t stumble.”

Much of the funding for the Parchman extension program comes from the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and its churches. Jim Futral, executive director of the board, told the graduates that they have been a blessing to Mississippi Baptists.

“It is the cross of Jesus that brings us together,” Mr. Futral said. “As I visit with you, I hear that in your voice, and I see it in your faces, and I thank God that you and I have had the privilege of coming to the cross together. Thank God for what has happened in your lives.”

Chris Buckhalter is one of the program’s success stories. Paroled in late 2008, the former standout running back at the University of Southern Mississippi returned to the prison to participate in the commencement service with the men he had learned alongside. Buckhalter said he wasn’t apprehensive or nervous about coming back to Parchman for the graduation. However, he knew the experience would be emotional.

One by one, the members of the graduating class greeted Buckhalter when he walked through the door. He was clearly moved by the greeting he received.

After his release, Buckhalter began speaking to high school and church groups about making the right choices. He said his time as a student in the seminary’s Parchman extension was an “awesome experience.”

“It makes a change in so many people’s lives,” Buckhalter said. “I get to do so much now. People realize that truly my life has changed. That’s why I came back from the free world to graduate with my class.”

Johnny Bley, director of the seminary’s Parchman extension, said graduates of the program are making an impact on the prison by serving as chaplain assistants and Bible study teachers. The graduates are leading a variety of ministry and educational activities including “Experiencing God” small groups and GED training groups. Mr. Bley said others are teaching basic literacy to their fellow inmates.

“To see the accomplishment and the hard work that they have put in, it just means the world to me,” Mr. Bley said of the current class. “To see the joy and the diligence that they have put forth, it’s very rewarding.”

Gary D. Myers is communications director at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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