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A new start

Theological education and revival meetings nothing unusual at Phillips State Prison

 

Gerald Harris/Index

Dr. Charles “Chuck” Kelley, left, president of New Orleans Seminary, congratulates Thomas Graham, Phillips State Prison inmate, who graduated from the Leavell College Extension Center of NOBTS with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Ministry.

BUFORD — One out of every 14 men in Georgia is in prison or under some kind of supervision. Phillips State Prison in Buford is the residence of over 1,000 adult male felons. It is home to prisoners who have had management problems at other prisons or centers and also houses those who could pose a risk if incarcerated elsewhere.

Interestingly, Phillips State Prison has become the home for an extension of New Orleans Seminary. The Extension Center is a part of the North Georgia Hub of New Orleans Seminary and is under the direction of Phil Weaver, pastor of Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Buford.

At NOBTS graduation exercises at Phillips on Dec. 13 Weaver stated, “When I first came to Phillips, I anticipated having opportunities to minister and hopefully be a blessing to those I encountered. Little did I know just how blessed I would be by working with this seminary extension and these students. I experienced firsthand the transforming power of God, particularly by watching these 25 graduates grow through a variety of academic and personal challenges over the last year.”

In speaking of the graduation Weaver explained, “What you are witnessing this morning is quite a miraculous scene! These men have persevered. They have overcome much adversity and many obstacles to get where they are today. They are living testimonies that ‘God will make a way, where there seems to be no way.’”

Stanley Clark is an inmate at Phillips State Prison. He is serving a life sentence on a charge of murder. However, shortly after his arrest seven years ago, Clark trusted Jesus as his Savior and his life was changed by the power of the Lord. Three years ago the Cartersville native enrolled in the NOBTS Leavell College Extension Center at Phillips State Prison. Now, Clark has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Ministry.

The proud graduate stated, “I want to use my education to help others. I intend to reach out to people who have been affected by drugs, particularly methamphetamines.”

Another graduate, Thomas Graham, 35, is serving a 20-year sentence on an armed robbery charge and been in prison for ten years. He was saved in the Clayton County jail after his arrest.

Gerald Harris/Index

Twenty-five Phillips State Prison inmates stand at attention before being called upon individually to receive their diplomas from the Leavell College Extension Center of NOBTS.

Graham explained, “This school (NOBTS) has helped me to see that I can achieve more than I have ever dreamed of attaining. I have not only learned theology, but I have learned how to relate to other people and build relationships. Now I believe God has called me to be an evangelist and engage in some kind of youth ministry in the Atlanta area.

The extremely articulate Graham was allocated a part on the program to express appreciate for all those who had made the educational opportunity available. In addressing the large audience gathered for the event, he spoke to the parents, particularly the mothers of the graduates, saying, “Today you finally get to see your sons make something out of their lives except a mess. We have discovered that drugs, violence and crime are not the way, but Jesus is.”

Graham helps to coordinate revival services at Phillips and also preaches for many of the services in the prison. Those who have not heard him speak cannot imagine the effectiveness of his speaking ability for his communication skills are extraordinary. Graham’s daughter was present for the graduation exercises and at one point he said, “My daughter is here today. She graduated from high school this year. We are both graduates of the class of 2010.”

In a tragic turn of events, the 18-year-old died unexpectedly Dec. 17 – four days after the graduation. Though she’d had some heart issues as a child, the death was very unexpected. To attend the funeral Graham’s family would need to pay $1,500 for a state car and two officers to accompany him. Donations quickly poured in to alleviate the cost for Graham to attend the funeral.

Several on the program expressed gratitude to the Georgia Baptist Convention for helping to make the Leavell College Extension Center available to them. The extension program at Phillips models the NOBTS college programs at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana and the Parchman State Prison in Mississippi.

Gerald Harris/Index

The Color Guard, having presented the United States and Georgia state flags at graduation exercises at Phillips State Prison, sit at attention until called upon to complete their duties. They precisely handled their responsibilities thus adding pomp and dignity to the ceremonies held on December 13th.

The Extension Center offers up to 30 inmates from the state of Georgia a two-year, 76-semester hour associate degree in Christian Ministry and a four-year, 126-semester hour Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministry. These fully-accredited college degrees are designed to provide a broad foundation for ministry within the prison system and beyond. Twenty-five of the inmates received degrees at the Dec. 13 graduation. Four received associate degrees and 21 received Bachelor of Arts degrees.

In addressing the graduates, NOBTS President Charles “Chuck” Kelly used Philippians 3:13-14 to urge his hearers to “Forget those things that are behind, and reach forth unto those things which are before – the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

Kelly remarked, “When you get your diploma you might well hear an angel say, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.’”

The NOBTS president continued, “Paul was in prison when he wrote the epistle to the Philippians. In fact, he wrote almost half of his epistles from a prison cell. Furthermore, he would witness to those guards to whom he was chained, win them to faith in Christ and send them out to tell the good news to others. In fact, he may have started more churches from a prison cell than as a free man.

“But your best day will be when you stand before the Lord Jesus in glory. He will not mention anything in your past, but say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ Then he will introduce you to the hosts of heaven as a precious child of God.”

Kelly then quoted from Isaiah 40: “He (the Lord) giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Then looking at the graduates, Kelly said, “That ‘they’ is you.”