The new chapel, the fifth at the prison, is crowned with a simple cross atop a gleaming white steeple. The cross towers over a skyline otherwise composed of razor wire, guard towers and high-intensity floodlights.
The new chapel stands near the prison’s death row cellblock, a fortress where 88 men await execution. The state’s lethal injection chamber is housed in a cinder block building between death row and the chapel. And several hundred middle-aged men, known as trustee prisoners, live in dormitories surrounding the new chapel in an area known as the prison’s Camp F.
With a central unit and five outlying camps, Angola is the largest maximum security prison in America. More than 5,000 men are imprisoned there and most are serving life sentences with no chance for parole. The penitentiary has a long history of violence and was once known as one of the bloodiest prisons in America.
A dozen years ago, Warden Burl Cain opened the prison to Christian ministries in a determined effort to save souls, reduce violence and provide hope to the inmates. “People who are converted and love the Lord are moral people,” Cain has said, “and you don’t have problems with them being predators in your prison anymore.”
Violence has decreased every year since the Christian outreach began. Today, evangelical churches flourish inside the prison camps and some 2,000 inmates walk with Christ. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has opened an Angola extension campus to train inmate pastors. And four chapels were built to serve churches throughout the prison. All were built with private funds.
When he preached at Angola two years ago, Franklin learned that churches inside Camp F had no chapel. They were meeting in the kitchen, in the exercise yard and sometimes even inside the execution building. Moved by the inmates’ desire to worship, Graham pledged to raise funds to purchase building materials for a Camp F chapel. The prisoners would construct the building themselves.
Early on a spring morning in April, under a pure blue sky and budding pecan trees, inmates lined up to make their way through security and into the new chapel for the dedication service. Local pastors, a district judge and a visiting warden from Georgia joined the celebration. The chapel was filled.
The dedication began with praise. Inmates in matching green sweat shirts from the Family Church Academic Choir sang “Jesus Is the Light of the World,” followed by the Pure Heart Messenger inmate quartet singing “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” Then Pastor Darrel Waters, a graduate of the prison seminary, thanked Franklin on behalf of the inmates.
“This chapel is a sanctified place,” Waters said. “We declare by faith that many souls will be saved here. Your investment will not be in vain. As it says in James 2:18, we will show you our faith by our works.”
Cain introduced Franklin.
“Franklin Graham, you’ve been a blessing to us,” he said. “Your dad was a blessing to us. Thank you so very much.”
Franklin then came to the podium. “We’re here today to dedicate this chapel to the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,” he said. “And we’re here to remember the price that was paid upon the cross. The only thing I asked for on this chapel was a cross. When people see this chapel I want them to see the cross.
The cross is the symbol of Jesus Christ, the most courageous man who ever walked this earth. The cross is the symbol of the pain Jesus went through for you and for me. Pain we read about in John 19:1-5. Why? Because He loved us and wanted to save you and me from our sin.”
The cross is a symbol of that love, Franklin told the inmates.
“We read of God’s love in John 3:16. Every time you look at the cross, remember that God loves you. Jesus Christ is alive here at Angola. He’ll forgive you of your sins and He’ll cleanse you. We thank God for each and every one of you. We thank God for the church behind these fences. We give thanks for the cross.”
Franklin ended his remarks with a prayer that included a call for those who did not know Jesus to pray the sinner’s prayer. Then he paused and said softly, “I want to also tell you about a family connection I will always have with Angola.”
During his one-day Festival two years ago, he visited the prison museum. Inside, he saw an exhibit explaining the dignified, loving funeral processions started by Cain to honor prisoners who die inside Angola. The processions include a horse drawn carriage and a casket handmade in the inmate cabinet shop. A casket made by master cabinetmaker “Grasshopper” Richard Liggett was part of the museum exhibit.
“I liked the simple coffin with a cross on top, and I asked the warden for two of them,” Franklin said. “My mama is buried in one and the other one is for my father.”
“Grasshopper” died last year and was buried in one of the caskets, Prison Chaplain Jim Rentz said at the conclusion of the service.
“I want to tell you what Grasshopper said when he made Billy’s Graham’s casket. He said, ‘Billy Graham is a simple man who preached a simple message. He must be buried in a simple casket.’”
Inmate Pastor Ted Genter led the audience in singing what he called the anthem of the church, “Amazing Grace.” For the last chorus, Genter asked the audience to stand. Throughout the chapel, men wept.