By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
ST. GABRIEL, La. (LBM) – The temptation to forgo baptism was strong just a day after an inmate named Leann accepted Christ during a revival service at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. But a nudge by the Holy Spirit helped her stay the course toward obedience.
“She told one of her friends on the way to the [Sunday baptism] service she may not go through with it,” LCIW Lead Chaplain Debi Sharkey told the Baptist Message. “Then she felt like she heard the Lord say, ‘Come as you are.’
“She said she didn’t expect to feel anything except the sensation of the cold water. But to her surprise she felt refreshed, renewed,” Sharkey continued. “She said she felt ‘lighter’ like she knew Jesus carried her sins away.”
During revival services attended by 413 women Sept. 27-29 at the maximum security prison nearly 10 miles east of Baton Rouge, 24 inmates made professions of faith and 17 of them were baptized.
Approximately 65 volunteers from 15 Louisiana Baptist churches participated in the revival, which included three worship services on Saturday and a worship service and baptism opportunity on Sunday.
Additionally, gift boxes were distributed to the inmates.
The Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge hosted a barbeque lunch Saturday for prisoners, guards and jail staff. Retired Louisiana Baptist Pastor Dick Debusk brought in large grills to cook 700 chickens and 200 pounds of sausage that were provided by the association.
Many others helped offsite, some serving as donors and others as volunteers who helped put together the gift boxes for the female inmates.
More than 30 churches were represented in packing boxes in the Tall Timbers Baptist Conference Center, Woodworth, in the Louisiana Baptist Building, Alexandria, and in Brownfields Baptist Church, Baton Rouge.
More than 100 churches contributed items included in the 600 gift boxes that were distributed.
Another 760 gift sets of personal items were left as gifts for future inmates.
The Georgia Barnette Offering for State Missions provided funds to purchase the boxes and pay for transporting them to the prison.
“It’s not an easy place to live or minister,” said Janie Wise, women’s missions and ministry team leader for Louisiana Baptists. “But there is a love that is really felt when you step inside the prison. I can’t imagine what they did to get there, but they understand what it’s like to have redemption through Christ.”
Debusk was overcome with a feeling of humbleness as he baptized each new convert from the previous day.
“The expression on the faces of those ladies was amazing,” Debusk told the Baptist Message. “You could see a transformation at the moment they were immersed and then raised out of the water. They were the perfect picture what Christ meant when he said, ‘You came into prison and visited me.’ I heard so many of the offenders rejoicing that while they were in prison, in a sense they were set free.”
Prior to the baptisms, Debusk preached a Sunday morning message based on the account of Jesus in the house of Simon the Leper, found in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12.
“Each of these ladies may be in prison, but they have something special to give to Jesus,” Debusk said. “Like Mary who gave the alabaster box to Jesus, the St. Gabriel women have a gift they can present to Christ, too.”
Checkerz Williams, pastor of Renew Church in Baton Rouge, and Manuel Pigee, pastor of United Believers Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, also preached at the revival services. The praise teams from Grace Community Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and Fellowship Church in Prarieville led music. Graduates of the prison’s New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary extension center served as decision counselors, and assisted with follow-up efforts.
Williams said the revival has become a highlight each year.
“I am always overwhelmed with joy and gratitude as they sing and perform drama skits when I am there,” Williams said. “Jesus said, ‘When I was in prison you visited me.’ And when the people asked, ‘When Lord?’ Jesus replied, ‘Whenever you did it for the least of my children you did it to me.’ The women of LCIW may have a different past than those outside the fences, but the dozens who accepted Christ will share the same future as every other believer. And hundreds of seeds were planted in the hearts and minds of those who haven’t accepted Christ yet. That is why I look forward to this opportunity every year.”
Sharkey said the inmates appreciated the gift boxes and the caring attitude shown by the volunteers.
“This is a positive exposure to the Gospel for these ladies, many who have never darkened the doors of a church” Sharkey said. “They are able to hear about life transformation and what Jesus has done for them. The volunteers sacrificed time and resources to give the gift boxes, set up the tent, participate in worship services and visit the ladies in the dorms. The ladies feel like they are not forgotten – that people actually love them and care about them. It is a tangible way to express Christ’s love.”
Jana Endris, a member of Fairview Baptist Church in Coushatta, has participated in 13 revivals but this was the first time she shared her testimony. She told the women the revival reminded her of a family reunion.
“I love those ladies like my sisters and was honored to share with them the work that Jesus has done and continues to do in my life,” Endris said. “My testimony is one of growing up with a loving Christian family, realizing I was a sinner in need of a Savior at seven years old, giving my life to Christ, being discipled by a strong church family and surrendering my life to the Lord, alongside my husband, in pastoral ministry. I let them know that even with Christ as my Savior I have had sin struggles and experienced heartache in my life but He was always with me to forgive me and help me through those difficult times.
“It is easy to allow Satan to make me believe that my testimony is not exciting and one that people don’t want to hear-especially women who have been saved out of a rough past,” she continued.
“It was an overwhelming, humbling privilege to share with my friends at LCIW what God has done for me and for them and that they are loved unconditionally by Him,” she said.
Sharing Christ also took place outside the prison.
Rhonda Mann was inspired by the revival services to look for opportunities to have a Gospel conversation, and her divine appointment took place at the hotel lobby in Zachary where the Louisiana Baptist volunteers were staying.
Mann, ministry assistant at the Vernon Baptist Association, was at the front desk where she overheard fellow guest Mary Spencer mention some setbacks in her life.
Spencer, who has congestive heart failure, was living in the hotel while her home was undergoing treatment for damage from mold.
Mann felt led by the Holy Spirit to approach and pray with her, and moments later Spencer repented for salvation, declaring Jesus to be her Savior.
“The Lord showed his glory that day,” Mann said. “It was such a sweet, sweet spirit at LCIW and so much love and Jesus being shared.”