Friday, October 9, 2020

Special 2020 City Notes | Ready or Not: Kingdom Innovation + Experimentation Comes to Angola Maximum Security Prison


Ready or Not: Kingdom Innovation for a Brave New World by Doug Paul


The question is whether or not we're willing to give up some of our playbooks to see the bigger picture of what God is doing. Will we keep the victories of the past gilded in gold, freezing our forms and models from a bygone era? Or will we let the winds of the Holy Spirit blow off the dust, melt the ice, and join the journey of finding the future, together? + Doug Paul, Ready or Not


My favorite book of 2020 not only includes amazing stories from the past, but a way for us to be present and discover in the midst of the mystery, misery, and mess that is this year all that Jesus is up to in His work of redemption and restoration.

The good news of Jesus, the promise of abundant life today, actually means that people can change. That places of generational sin can change. That places of slavery and racism and violence and hatred can change

Pastor, author, and strategist Doug Paul, in his recently released Ready or Not: Kingdom Innovation for a Brave New World, is whimsical and creative in helping us explore the true possibility above, including along the way many wonderful stories from human history that surprise and stir with hope. His writing is humorous, heartfelt, and immensely practical for how we can identify current frustrations, welcome fresh ideas, and experiment with new possibilities that could bring forth the societal, cultural, and spiritual changes we need right now so we can embody together another story worth writing about. 

I'm sure I will be coming back to the wisdom inside Ready or Not again and again as 2020 transitions into 2021. And my prayer is that we will discover again, as we are born again to Jesus' living, abundant hope, and work steadfastly together, the grace that is given to forgive us and cover our flaws, as well as empower us to walk by faith and be courageous. 

But for now, below is an excerpt from the Phase 3: Experimentation (i.e. the 5 phases are Identification, Ideation, Experimentation, Mobilization, and Multiplication) section of the book that includes a story about Angola Prison ... 

Experimentation | Chapter 5 "A History of Angola" Excerpt

Sitting on about eighteen thousand acres and bordering the Mississippi River outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a former slave plantation. The slave breeder who owned the plantation believed the "best slaves came from (the country of) Angola." He specifically looked for male "studs," descended from those who survived the brutal sea journey from Angola, after being kidnapped and beaten into submission. Until the state intervened in 1901, thirty-six years after the end of the Civil War and thirty-eight years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the plantation continued to operate a form of slavery.

This is a place of historical demonic activity, a place where unspeakable evil was exercised on a group of people who had done nothing wrong but be born on the wrong continent, in the wrong country, at the wrong time in history. Sitting on the former slave plantation today is Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with the vast majority of its inmates serving time for violent crimes. Half the prisoners are incarcerated on the charge of murder. 

In the 1970s it was one of the most violent prisons in the United States, and earned the reputation of being one of the bloodiest prisons in the world. In Louisiana, a life sentence comes with no chance of parole. In this state, if you're sentenced to death row or a life sentence, you have a 100 percent chance of ending up in Angola, with only two ways out: A pardon from the governor or president, or death. And 89 percent of convicts will die behind the walls. For years, it was common for inmates to serve as prison guards, and a culture of inmate-on-inmate assault was not only perpetuated but encouraged. The men often wore layers of newspaper or magazines under their shirts at night, to defend against a possible assault from inmates looking to take them out with shivs while they slept.

And yet ... a revival took place in Angola Prison. 

This is a story of hope, healing, and heaven coming to earth. And for the curious mind, it raises the question: How did this happen? ...

Experimentation | Chapter 5 "How Did a Seemingly God-Forsaken Place Become Filled with Hope in God?" Excerpt

(Remember) In the 1970s, Angola Prison was known as one of the bloodiest prisons in the world. As you walked through its gates, it still had the ethos and appearance of a plantation. Prisoners worked each day on a sprawling farm within the walls of the prison itself. Because it was a plantation during the Civil War, it is highly likely, both then and now, that some of the prisoners were or are descendants of those slaves. In the prison, many of the complexities of generational sin were on full display: white supremacy, demonic activity, institutional racism, broken homes, what's known as "the new Jim Crow" of mass incarceration, and the tidal wave of violent cultureall colliding in one place

If ever there was a God-forsaken place where hope should be flickering out, this was it.

In 1995, Burl Cain became the prison warden of Angola Prison. A stout man with a lilting Louisiana drawl, Cain is an unlikely character to usher in a revival of God through an out-of-the-box prison reform. But he'd had a profoundly personal spiritual experience as he walked through Henry Blackaby's process for learning how to know God (for more about the story behind how Henry Blackaby, a pastor of a small parish in a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada "didn't believe he had the perfect process from the get-go, but kept experimenting and honing with faithfulness over many years," which eventually led to Experiencing God, workbook that has up to now impacted more than 10 million people, that's another reason to purchase Ready or Not). The idea that God was at work all around brought the revelation to Cain that God also had to be at work in Angola. One day, while overseeing an execution, Burl felt God say, Did you ever tell that man about me? You just sent a man into eternity. Immediately, Cain felt defensive. (I mean ... who wouldn't?!) But God was inviting him to see something ... something Jesus was already up to. Burl shifted his perspective—instead of seeing these men first as murderers, he saw them as people without hope.


Experimentation | Chapter 5 "Experiencing God in Angola Prison Among First-Degree Criminals" Excerpt

Soon thereafter, Cain started leading an Experiencing God class in Angola Prison. Eighty inmates showed up.

(Then) Cain went on to: Learn, tweak, adjust, iterate. The next time around, two hundred inmates came. You see, the thing about experiencing good news is you want to tell people. Every time they did a class, numbers swelled.

Burl Cain had walked through Experiencing God, and he knew how to use what I refer to as the "Grooves of Grace" principle: Find what God is doing and join him in it. There was something happing with the prisoners, so he kept experimenting and iterating. In 1999, Cain brokered a partnership with New Orleans Baptist Seminary to open an extension center in the prison. Men who had put people into the grave had found Jesus and were being trained in gospel ministry. You can see how this innovative leadership pipeline started to develop. People came to faith in Jesus, and then some of them were trained to lead in the prison as pastors. So when Hurricane Katrina and Rita hit, it was graduates of the program who were offering pastoral care in other maximum security prisons.

What's key to see is that Cain didn't fully know that would happen when he started. He was experimenting with the course, experimenting with job programs and theological education, but he didn't have it all right out of the gate. He discovered what worked by tweaking and adjusting as he went.

Thousands of inmates made new professions of faith in Jesus Christ. A Bible college was started inside the prison along with a re-entry jobs program. Acts of violence were down 74 percent. Convicted rapists and murderers who would never see outside the prison walls were ordained as pastors and began starting congregations within the prison itself. Some ordained inmates requested transfers and were sent to other maximum security prisons, serving as missionaries, starting new congregations, and bringing the hope of the gospel to some of the darkest places in the United States. (Think, for a moment, how this parallels the story of the Apostle Paul. A man guilty of murder who gives his life to Jesus and becomes an imprisoned apostle of Jesus Christ. If that doesn't get your heart racing, I don't know what does!)

The turnaround at Angola Prison was so unprecedented, so extraordinary, that everyone took notice. The Atlantic not only ran feature article, but after seeing it live and in person, sent a documentary film crew to capture it. A journalistic entity, usually known for being at least slightly antagonistic to American Christianity, The Atlantic reported, "Today, hundreds of inmate-ministers are turning thousands of their incarcerated brethren to Jesus."

One prisoner, who'd been there for more than three decades said Angola had "changed from night to day." Because of the strict sentencing laws that make it almost impossible to get out of Angola Prison, there is a much greater incentive for keeping peace within this penitentiary than there might be within other prisons. With the practices of Experiencing God at the center, Cain began to introduce the prisoners to a new reality of Christianity and the gospel. Worship services happened every day. A group of inmates started something called Malachi Dads, through which they train other incarcerated fathers how to be good dads to their kids living outside the prison. Hundreds of inmates have been trained as ministers of the gospel.

The good news of Jesus, the promise of abundant life today, actually means that people can change. The places of generational sin can change. That places of slavery and racism and violence and hatred can change

"When I see the hands of men raised in worship, I know these are the same hands that held a rape victim," one inmate says. "The same hands that held stolen goods, the same hands that held the murderous gun."

The genius of Burl Cain is this: His kingdom innovation gave prisoners access to the only thing that can change the centuries of brokenness we see at work on the land of Angola Prison—King Jesus and the unfolding of his now-and-not-yet kingdom. ... 

+ Start small ... 
+ Expect to get punched in the mouth. 
+ Iterate. 
+ Use the laboratory of your own life. 
+ Find the Grooves of Grace. 
+ Join Jesus in what he's already doing.



Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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