As Nice As They Let Me, As Mean As They Make Me

One of the growing ministries of Desiring God is the outreach to prisoners. Those of you in the Philippian Fellowship hear about this more often than the rest of our website guests.

On Thursday a team of four of us stopped in at Angola Prison in Angola, Louisiana. Warden Burl Cain was very gracious to take us into his world, even the most painful part of it.

Here is what he said three years ago in Decision Magazine about this prison:

This prison is the largest maximum-security prison in America. It is one of the most famous prisons in the whole world. It has only murderers, rapists, armed robbers and habitual felons. The average sentence is 88 years, with 3,200 people in one place serving life sentences. Ninety percent of the inmates will die here. This is a place of hopelessness, so if Angola can change, the rest of the country’s prisons can’t say, “We can’t do this.”

For those who know prison culture from the inside, this place is astonishing. On a campus of 18,000 acres, which is mainly farm land, the prisoners raise virtually all their food and eat three meals for a total cost of $1.45 each. The fish and crawdads that we ate were from "the Farm.”

There is a local extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the prison and about 140 prisoners are enrolled. There are six churches in the prison and they train their own pastors. They send trained “missionaries” to other prisons to plant churches. They do this without using any tax money. But O the money—and lives—it saves!

Violence in the prison is rare. Courtesy and respect is pronounced. The ministry team of women who were visiting at the same time we were said they were treated with more respect from prisoners here, than in many places on the “outside.” Public profanity is not allowed.

The 42-inch church bell hangs high over the chapel in a prisoner-built tower. They rescued the bell from storage where it had been put after falling and killing a man. Some of the prisoners say: The bell killed a man and we killed a man, but now the bell and we serve the Lord Jesus.

Warden Cain says: I am as nice as they let me be and as mean as they make me be. Given the job he is given to do, it is a good motto.

I saw the Warden’s “nice” as we sat for half an hour with G.B., a prisoner on Death Row whose death by lethal injection the Warden will oversee in January. There are over 80 on death row, some now for over 14 years as appeals go on. The Warden asked me to share the gospel with G.B. Never have I felt a greater urgency to say the good news plainly and plead from my heart. The thief on the cross is a hero on Death Row.

The Warden answered all G.B.’s questions about what the last day would be like and who from his family and the press could be there. He gave G.B. unusual privileges for these last seven weeks. He was manifestly compassionate while stating the facts with precision. I took G.B.’s picture with my phone and said I would pray for him. (Perhaps you would too.)

I preached with all my heart to those who could fit in the chapel, and to the rest by closed circuit television. G.B. (and three others on Death Row) told me they’d be watching. I pulled no punches:

For 90% of you the next stop is not home and family, but heaven or hell. O what glorious news we have in that situation. And believe me it is not the prosperity of Gospel. Jesus came and died and rose again not mainly to be useful, but to be precious. And that he can be in Angola as well as Atlanta. Perhaps even more.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.