When Franklin Graham dedicated a new chapel at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola on April 20, he called everyone’s attention to a cross atop the chapel. The cross towers over the nearby “death row” cellblock housing prisoners awaiting execution.
“When people see this chapel, I want them to behold the cross,” said Graham. “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 me. Pain we read about in John 19: 1-5. Why? Because he loved you and he wanted to save you and me from our sin. The cross is also symbol of his love. The cross is a symbol that God loves you.”
Graham continued: “Jesus Christ is alive here in Angola. I thank each and every one of you for the church behind these walls. We give thanks for the cross and we dedicate this chapel to the glory of Jesus Christ.”
Speaking for the inmates, Darrel Waters said to Graham and the audience, “Your dad is an inspiration to all of us. You are an inspiration to us. We declare by faith that many souls will be saved here in this chapel. Your investment will not be in vain. As it says in 1 James 2:18, we will show you our faith by our works.”
Graham ended his dedication remarks with a prayer that included a call for those who did not know Jesus to pray the sinner’s pray. Then he said, “I want to tell you about a family connection I have with Angola.”
He told the story about preaching in Angola two years ago. During that visit he saw the plain wooden coffins topped with a cross made by inmate cabinet maker “Grasshopper” Richard Liggett. The plain wooden coffins were used for inmate funerals.
Graham said, “I liked the simple coffins, and I asked for two of them. My mama was buried in one. The other one is for my father.”
Prison Chaplin Jim Rentz followed Graham to the podium and said, “I want to quote what Grasshopper said about the coffin he made for Billy Graham before Grasshopper died last year: ‘Billy Graham is a simple man who preached a simple message. He must be buried in a simple casket.'”
Inmate Ted Genter then led the dedication audience in singing “Amazing Grace.” Genter asked the audience to stand for the last chorus. Throughout the chapel, men wept.
Inmate Pastor’s Story
Inmate Pastor Charles Varnado, 64, accepted Christ in the prison hospital in 1987 after kidney stones forced the removal of one of his kidneys. He was fearful and in pain, but found comfort in Christ.
Varnado now lives in the trustee Camp F next to the new chapel. He enrolled in the first class of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary inside the prison. Varnado played the saxophone during Franklin Graham’s festival two years ago and worked as a counselor. He pastors a small church of 15-20 men inside Camp F that meets on Monday nights.
“Before the chapel,” Varnado shared, “we would meet in classrooms or the kitchen or we’d meet outside under the pecan tree in the yard. I helped them build the chapel with prayers.
“I minister to the men on death row in love,” Varnado added. “You can out preach me. And you might out pray me. But nobody out loves me.”