In his letter to Philemon, the St. Paul devotes most of this brief New Testament book to a discussion of a man named Onesimus, a slave who had fled captivity after being accused of theft and had befriend Paul, most likely during the apostle’s imprisonment in Ephesus.
This obscure Bible story has become the animating spirit behind the Onesimus Project, a new ministry at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (and the subject of a recent column of mine on NOLA.com).
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[bwho became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.
The Onesimus Project is the brainchild of Warden Burl Cain, his staff and the leaders of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola. They have created a mini-seminary program designed to educate short-termers (non-lifer inmates expected to be released after a few years) in theology and ministry and train them to serve as church ministers in the inner cities of Louisiana.
“We ‘father’ a man here in prison,” the Main Prison’s chaplain, Rev. Robert Toney, explained after reading the Philemon passage to me. “We may not can go back, but in our place we are sending Onesimus, which will represent me, to preach the gospel.”
“It’s essentially a mini seminary,” inmate Steven Quatrevingt, who serves as the Onesimus Project coordinator for Angola’s Main Prison, told me. “We we are teaching out of the same text books, the same courses that the seminary (teaches). It’s just guys who are too short-term to attend seminary or maybe aren’t quite academically qualified for college-level work, but they feel called to ministry so we try to teach them the essentials of ministry.”
The idea that a former inmate might be a very effective pastor among inner-city youth is obvious to everyone involved in the project. “The difference would be is that this person that they are sending back, he has a better opportunity, or [be] received better to communicate [to] individuals who may be in the inner city, that may speak the same language that they speak, have some of the same experiences that those people in the inner city are experiencing,” Ron Hicks, an inmate pastor and Onesimus instructor, told me during my recent visit to Angola. “And he’s able to feel and understand and reach them with a different perspective than a person that’s never had those experiences that they have.”
One of the first inmates Angola officials hope to send to a church on the outside is Jerial Hardy, an Alexandria native serving a 34-year manslaughter sentence. Hardy has been imprisoned for 20 years. Hardy hopes he will soon have a parole hearing that might result in his release.
A seminary graduate, Hardy has helped lead the prison’s Assembly of God church for 10 years. It’s the church that Warden Cain attends on Sunday mornings. In a sense, he has become the warden’s pastor.
Hardy is hopeful he can take what he has learned in seminary and in ministry and apply it to the real-world problems that plague Louisiana’s cities by working for a church in the New Orleans area. “I would like to partner with the ministry,” the soft-spoken Hardy said. “Whatever the pastor or the leadership would have for me do, I would be willing to do it.
“Preferably, I would like to work with young kids,” he added. “That’s where my specialty is.”
In addition to serving as a pastor, Hardy is a re-entry mentor. That means he lives with and helps train the short-time inmates sent to Angola as part of the state’s re-entry program sponsored by special re-entry courts in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and elsewhere.
Short-timers arrive at Angola and are schooled in a trade, such as air conditioning and heating repair or automobile mechanics. These inmates are also taught life skills designed to ease their re-entry into society and make it less likely they will return to their past ways. They take parenting courses. They learn from their mentors how to behave on the job and how to conduct themselves in society.
As one inmate mentor and automotive repair instructor, George Guillam, told me, “We put these guys under a microscope and hold them accountable.”
Standing in a large garage, surrounded by the latest high-tech auto repair equipment, I asked Guillam, “How does it make you feel, training some young guy who is going to have the chance to re-enter society, something you may never get to do?”
He admitted that he briefly resented that fact, but soon reoriented his thinking. “I have an opportunity to equip a man and give him everything I would have wanted to have,” he said, adding that the young people he mentors return to their help mentor their own families and strengthen their communities. “I’m planting him back into the city,” Guillam said, smiling. “It’s me being a mad scientist. We can equip these guys. They can go home and change the world.”
Quatrevingt echoed Guillam. “What I tell ‘em when I talk to ‘em is, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been and I’m trying to keep you from going where I’ve been. You don’t want to come here the way I did, 27 years later, trying to get out, you know?’
“It opens their eyes,” he said. “’I’ve been there and I’m trying to keep you from coming here,’ he tells them, ‘So, you need to straighten your act up.’
“That kind of rings a bell with them because they see the reality of it,” Quatrevingt adds. “I was 24 years old when I get here. I’m 51 now. My son is eight years older than I was when I got here. You start to tell them things like that and they start to open their eyes.”
Assistant Warden Perry Stagg says he believes that Cain’s emphasis on “moral rehabilitation” is working through the mentoring component of the re-entry program, the seminary and, now, the new Onesimus Project.
“We don’t have a bunch of unruly guys, running around acting like thugs out here,” Stagg told me. “We’re teaching them not just the job skills, but we’re also teaching them how to behave on the job, how to show up for the job, how to respect your supervisor, respect authority. How to dress on the job, who to speak, how to act. All those things. They’re really learning how to be good citizens, good productive citizens – husbands, fathers, employees, taxpayers.”
Dr. Ricky Sharkey, senior chaplain at Angola and co-director and professor of the Seminary, agrees with Stagg. “It’s no doubt that Warden Cain’s vision for moral rehabilitation is taking place,” he said. “God is doing amazing things here. When men’s lives are changed by the Lord, they want to give back.
“The lifers, they don’t have that hope to be free one day,” Sharkey said. “They give back in other ways – by investing in these short-timers. They want to affect community and give back by giving to these guys who have shorter sentences. And, then, the guys whose lives are transformed . . . they want to go back into the urban setting and make a difference.”
Stagg stressed that the re-entry inmates don’t simply serve a pre-set amount of time and go home. “[The courts] leave that decision up to us,” he said, adding that he and the other assistant wardens often rely on inmate mentors to advise them on their mentees’ progress.
“Our goal is to make better men when they go home,” Stagg added. “When I feel like you can live next door to me and I can leave my door unlocked at night, you’re ready.”
Life mentors, like Hardy and Guillam live with the re-entry inmates in a dorm. They are with them virtually every minute of the day. That continuous contact helps them not only guide their mentees, but also judge their readiness for release. “The prison system,” Guillam said, “is going to reveal who you really are.”
Hardy told me that he believes his mentoring experience would make him ideally suited to work with at-risk youth. “I can relate to the troubled youth, the delinquents,” he said. “I, myself, come from a poor neighborhood, raised by a single mother. It took this situation of incarceration to really open my eyes to find a different way. I think I can work some strategies that could really help bait the hook, get ‘em involved, get ‘em in.”
After five years, the standard re-entry project is working well. Now, Cain and his staff are hoping to expand it to include the Onesimus Project, which they hope will produce a steady stream of trained pastors for urban churches – or suburban churches looking to establish inner-city ministries. That not only means graduating the approximately 70 inmates currently enrolled, but also finding churches around Louisiana willing to accept them.
“The whole concept, originally, is to try to get some of these suburban churches, more affluent churches, to kind of adopt some of these Onesimus guys,” Stagg told me. “Because the urban churches can’t really afford to pay these guys to start these ministries. So the concept is to partner up with some of these (suburban) churches that have the money to sponsor these guys and go and work within an urban church and take root within the community . . . and try to build up those urban churches.”
The challenge, he says, is finding churches willing to invest the time and money in a former inmate. “You’re taking a guy that’s coming out straight out of Angola, straight out of prison,” Stagg said. “A guy that may have been here 20, 30, 40 years – or a guy that may have been here only a few years. Either way, still a convicted felon.
“You run into the same issues you do when you try to get these guys jobs when they go home, whether it’s a welding job or an auto mechanic job or whatever it might be.” Because they bear the stigma of convicted felon, Stagg said, some “people just don’t want to take a chance on them.”
For now, Hardy appears to be the prison’s best hope of proving that the new ministry project can work. “Our ideal hope for Jerial would be the suburban church will actually find an inner-city, urban church that, perhaps, is even closed and open it up,” Chaplain Toney said. “And Jerial would be in the inner city, pastoring that church, supported by the suburban church.”
“If Jerial goes out there and does real well,” Stagg said, “well, the next guy’s going to have an easier time because he’s already laid the groundwork. But if Jerial goes out there and messes up, he sets us back 10 years because getting the next guy a foot in the door is going to be that much harder. So, it’s really up to these guys, once we get them there, to kind of lay the groundwork.”
One way to get churches interested in hiring former inmates like Hardy is to involve them in prison ministry at Angola and other state prisons.
“The better [the churches] know the guy up here, the easier it will be to accept him when he leaves here,” Quatrevingt said. “If they’ve got a guy they’ve never met, who the pastors and the pastoral staff doesn’t know at all, and he’s coming out of prison, they have a hard time accepting him into the program.
“But you get them to start sending somebody up here to meet these guys, and know ‘em as they’re going through the program, and are mentors for them while they are here, then when they leave here,” Quatrevingt said, the inmates might find a church home. “The more volunteers we have coming up there, mentoring the guys while they’re here, the easier it will be to send them into churches.”
That’s why Cain and Stagg spend so much time inviting business leaders and church groups to visit Angola and learn about the re-entry program and the prison’s faith-based ministries. “We want to get as many people up here as we can to see what we are doing, to see, first hand, the training these guys are getting,” Stagg told me.
Cain and Stagg also bring probation and parole officers to Angola to see the various programs. “We want them to reinforce the things we’ve been teaching them,” Stagg said.
If the Onesimus Project works, it will be because it first takes root in Louisiana’s Baptist churches. The project has no more enthusiastic champion than Rev. Wayne Jenkins, who is team leader for Evangelism and Church Growth for Louisiana Baptists.
Jenkins says he is constantly working to invite leading Baptist pastors to visit the prison for a weekend and see the seminary and the new project firsthand. “Bring them in there for a day, hear our vision,” he said, and they are often sold on the idea. “If I can get a foothold, we can get some more churches involved.”
“It’s in its infancy,” Jenkins acknowledges, “but I believe in the vision that he [Cain] has.”
For his part, Sharkey already sees success in connecting inmate pastors to Baptist churches on the outside, citing one inmate pastor who leads the prison’s Grace Baptist Church. “He has recently been ordained as a Baptist minister and I sat in the meeting last week with a credentials committee with the Association of Baptist Churches in Washington Parish,” Sharkey said. “They are in the process of making a recommendation to their association for his church to be included in their association. That will give him, as a pastor, access to relationships with nearly a hundred churches. I’m hoping that that relationship can flourish and help with the Onesimus Project.”
In the end, it will likely come down to whatever success the first few inmate pastors have on the outside. Hardy knows there is a chance he could be one of them. He says he is ready, if the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole give him a chance.
“We learn how to build healthy relationships and how to maintain those healthy relationships,” he told me. “And I think by me knowing how to relate to these young guys, it will really help me make a difference when it comes to evangelism. Strategies and techniques that I’ve learned as an inmate pastor, as a mentor, it really helps you reach all types of people. And, again, I enjoy my job, what I do. Just making a difference, one man at a time.”