Called From Behind the Walls
While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cites a diminished sense of self-worth and personal value among prisoners struggling under the stigma of conviction and prison time, Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplain Edward J. Roberts hopes to give them a purpose within and outside of prison walls.
The 243,111-square-foot facility, which is run by the private corporation The GEO Group Inc., detains approximately 1,800 nonviolent criminal aliens who have 90 months or less remaining on their sentence.
Roberts came to the facility after working for the federal Bureau of Prisons for 20 years as a chaplain in various institutions throughout the country.
With many inmates facing deportation to their home countries, Roberts says the Lord put upon his heart that they are all potential missionaries.
Upon receiving permission from the prison system and warden to train inmates using Global University materials, Roberts cast the vision to the prisoners that they are there for a reason, and that they could be trained to return to their countries to plant new churches or serve in existing ones.
Initially hoping to train about a dozen inmates, Roberts says the response has been far beyond what he expected.
Now in its second year, over 100 have enrolled in the program with a dropout rate near zero. Four new classes are offered each year. Training takes about a year to complete.
Specialized training is offered throughout the week and the Sunday morning service, called the New Shepherd service, provides opportunity for students to preach and practice leading a service.
Roberts preaches Sunday afternoon, as students usher, lead the choir, and otherwise assist in what is called the Pastoral Service.
In addition, two inmates serve as associate ministers to oversee the program, administer tests, and learn how to pastor larger groups of people.
“It’s a training program,” Roberts says. “God has called us to train men to be pastors and to raise up men in the church.”
The morning service draws about 110 men, which Roberts says is proof that fellow prisoners are behind the program and supportive of practicing pastors.
The afternoon service, which is held in the gymnasium, draws about 150.
Roberts describes the services, which are translated into Spanish to accommodate the largely Hispanic population, as vibrant, with around 10 inmates accepting Christ as Savior every Sunday.
Manny Cordero, senior director of AG Chaplaincy Ministries, says he is not surprised that many inmates are interested in getting better prepared so they can minister.
“Once they have experienced grace and know what the Lord has done for them, it’s easy for them to want to share it and have others come to the saving knowledge of the Lord,” he says.
Cordero held a two-day Spanish-language revival at Moshannon last year that drew around 500 men every night. While there, he met with some of the students in Roberts’ program.
Cordero says he is cautious about calling inmates “pastors” because of their criminal backgrounds, but describes the students as mature in their faith and having embraced their role as ministers called by the Lord.
As they prepare to return to their home countries, Cordero says they have a greater open door to minister because family, friends, and loved ones are often excited about their return, and there isn’t the same stigma of incarceration as there is in the U.S.
With many returning to Latin America or Africa where there is Christian revival but a lack of qualified Biblical teachers, Cordero says people who are knowledgeable about the scriptures are welcomed.
“What Ed is doing is really impacting the work in those countries because he’s sending people who are very ready, very prepared,” he says. “It is brilliant to get these guys who are going back to their own countries to minister and join the church without the cultural barrier or stigma.”
While Robert’s program is unique in scope, Cordero says there is a current movement of seminary and Bible school training taking place in the prison system.
An inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola recently earned a master’s degree from Global University and is currently pursuing a doctorate.
Similar training is also taking place in prisons throughout Texas and Alabama.
As inmates are equipped with purpose for their life to serve the Lord, Cordero says he hopes to see the program at Moshannon replicated.
Though it is still early, Roberts says a few graduates have already returned to their home country of Colombia and started churches.
“From one little place in the middle of Pennsylvania, you can affect the entire world for God,” Roberts says.