By Mark H. Hunter, Regional Reporter
ANGOLA – When the announcer at the recent AWANA Lifeline Returning Hearts celebration called the name of the first Angola inmate to come down out of the grandstands to greet a child he had not seen for nearly a year, Tracey Sanders burst into tears.
“I started boo-hooing,” said Sanders, a second grade school teacher and volunteer from Satsuma Baptist Church in Livingston. “When I saw the joy of the children seeing their dads, and the joy of the dads seeing their children – I just couldn’t help it.
“As a teacher I see so many children who do not have a father figure,” Sanders said. “I have students right now whose fathers are incarcerated.”
Satsuma Baptist sent 27 volunteers and brought 26 children to the ninth annual event. More than 760 children, accompanied by 540 volunteers from 24 states, spent the day with about 340 inmate fathers, grandfathers and uncles.
More than 340 mothers and grandmothers also came to the prison; they participated in a separate event just for them.
The 18,000-acre prison houses 6,200 offenders in six separate camps. More than 3,200 are serving life sentences and prison chaplains estimate 1,200 to 1,500 are born-again Christians.
The Returning Hearts is held at the Main Camp’s rodeo grounds, which was transformed into a family-friendly carnival.
Kids bounced and climbed on a half-dozen inflatables, took pony rides, played tailgate-style games and ate lots of cotton candy, hot dogs and hamburgers washed down with frosty bottles of water.
Brad Delaughter served as an Angola chaplain for five years and last year accepted the call to be pastor at Satsuma Baptist.
“This is a state mission project for our church, so it gives them a wonderful opportunity to experience this,” Delaughter said. The church has an active congregation of around 100, he said, and 27 volunteered. “That’s phenomenal for a church our size.”
Teen volunteer Nathan Sanders, 13, said, “I think it’s a really good experience for the kids to get with their dads.”
Don Stidham, an AWANA leader from First Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., brought Matthew Hebert, 13, to see his father. Kyle Hebert, 47, who is serving 40 years for an attempted murder conviction, had never met Matthew until a 2009 Returning Hearts celebration.
“It’s a real blessing,” Stidham said. An AWANA video of Returning Hearts events transformed his attitude about men in prison, he said. “Anything is possible with God in your heart.”
Kyle Hebert got saved shortly after being incarcerated, and graduated in 2010 from the Angola branch campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Our relationship has increased immeasurably and it’s all to the glory of God,” Kyle Hebert said. Sometime during the day, he and Matthew were going to have “the talk,” the dad said. “The world wants to swallow up young men like him and we’re not going to let that happen.”
Matthew, who lives with his mother, said he appreciated being with his dad.
“Having my dad fills in the empty space that I have with just my mother,” Matthew Hebert said.
Warden Burl Cain, who crafted the Returning Hearts event with AWANA’s president and CEO, Jack Eggar, stressed the event is not about the men or the prison.
“It’s all about the kids,” Cain said. “This program can reduce the crime rate by breaking the generational cycle of inmates’ children, who are seven times more apt to commit a crime than children of people who are not prisoners.
“It also helps the prisoners to intervene with their child and lead his child away from a life of crime,” Cain continued. “Even though he is in prison, he can still be a dad. Kids need their dad.”
The inmate fathers participate in a year-long “Malachi Dads” fatherhood program, based on the scripture, Malachi 3:7 – Yet from the days of your fathers you have gone away from my ordinances and have not kept them. ‘Return to Me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD of Hosts.
“Returning Hearts is one of the greatest events we have for the fathers all year long,” said Angola Chaplain Robert Toney. “They spend the whole day having fun and it helps the kids to forgive their fathers if they have resentment. Children of inmates are victims too; they didn’t do anything to deserve not having a father at home. This helps heal those wounds.”
During the year the children attend AWANA programs at local churches and regularly correspond with their inmate fathers or grandfathers, all with the goal of restoring broken relationships or improving restored ones.
“Reconciliation is the closest thing to God’s heart because He sent His son Jesus to the cross to reconcile man to himself,” Eggar said. “The master key of straightening out a lot of society’s ills is to reconcile the fathers with their children. When there is forgiveness there is healing.”
More than 50 prisons and jails have enlisted the Malachi Dads program, added Mike Broyles, Lifeline executive director; more than 1,500 men have graduated from it nationwide, he added.
The Returning Hearts event, which began at Angola, is now held at dozens of prisons and jails across the nation.
Art Rorheim founded AWANA as a children’s program at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago in 1941. More than two million youngsters now take part in AWANA through 28,000 churches in 100 denominations, and 100 countries.
“It’s a blessing to see what God has done; it’s a miracle!” said Rorheim, now 95, his voice thick with emotion. “Most of all we’re looking forward to giving the kids the gospel. The gospel is what is going to change these kids.”
AWANA stands for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, from II Timothy 2:15, where the Apostle Paul advises his young friend Timothy, to study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.