Prison Preachers: Game Plan for Life celebrates new prison seminary students
By Shavonne Walker
Lewis was raised the son of a preacher and his whole life he knew that he was destined for the ministry, but he never really believed his calling would materialize. He’s since circled back and in four years will receive a bachelor of arts degree in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on counseling.
Lewis, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of more than 600 inmates at the Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C. He is also one of 30 seminary students with the Game Plan for Life Field Minister Program.
Game Plan for Life is a men’s ministry and nonprofit started by former NFL head coach and current NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs. The nonprofit organization partners with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to fully fund the North Carolina Field Minister Program.
The program began in the summer of 2017 and each year accepts 30 inmates out of the hundreds who apply. Game Plan for Life funded the launch of the program and continues to do so through fundraising events and public donations.
The men who are enrolled in the program are temporarily transferred to the medium-security prison during those four years. The majority of the inmates in the program are those who are serving sentences of 15 years to life.
This week, a number of stakeholders, interested parties and invited guests boarded a private plane in Concord and headed to Nash Correctional for a convocation ceremony to kick-off the upcoming school year.
Lewis was one of those students who had the opportunity to share his testimony with those gathered following the ceremony.
“I’ve come to realize, you can’t do this without God,” he said.
Lewis says he now realizes that the calling he was running away from is what he’ll be able to use to reach others.
The goal is that once inmates like Lewis graduate, they will take what they’ve learned to minister in other North Carolina prisons. In the end, through the Field Ministers Program, the hope is that in order to see a culture change they must first transform those who form the culture.
Randy, not his real name, grew up on the southside of Chicago. He was involved in martial arts and joined the military, but got into some trouble, he explained.
He came to know Christ before enrolling in the seminary program. When asked to share his thoughts on Coach Gibbs, Game Plan for Life and the others who are invested in him — Randy said, “I’m going to give them everything I’ve got.”
“It’s one of those God things,” Mark Howard said of how the Field Ministers Program came about.
In 2012, Howard, president of the concrete business Precast Supply Company, saw an ad in the newspaper for a Game Plan for Life breakfast. He decided to attend. He didn’t have a newspaper subscription, but somehow the paper was lying in his driveway one day.
During the breakfast, after hearing Coach Gibbs speak, Howard gave his life to Christ. Growing up, Howard didn’t go to church. In fact, “church was not in our vocabulary,” he said.
Howard bought Gibbs’ book and from it developed a curriculum that he then began to teach at the Cabarrus County jail. He wanted to do more and proposed teaching at the state prison. He chose Piedmont Correctional for its proximity and the fact that the men incarcerated were there on a longer-term than they would be in the county jail, giving him more of a chance to make an impact.
He met Gibbs through teaching the coach’s grandchildren in football. Gibbs had been sitting in the stands one day and Howard struck up a conversation about attending the breakfast, reading his book and developing a curriculum at the local prison. Gibbs introduced Howard to former NFL football player Renaldo Wynn, who is executive director of Game Plan for Life.
Through a friend who knew of Howard’s work with prisons, the Concord businessman and Wynn were invited to tour Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary, where there was a program that connected inmates with a local Bible college. The men stayed on the grounds of the prison for three days.
Afterward, Wynn and Howard were convinced North Carolina needed a similar program. Gibbs agreed and wrote a $100,000 check to get them started. The goal of getting a Bible college in a state prison system led Howard to then-Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice David Guice.
“He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to start a program like this. When can you come to Raleigh?’,” Howard said.
Howard then had a chance meeting with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who was interested in helping them cut through some red tape to make the program a possibility.
Eventually, Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was on board. Akin had for years prayed about partnering to provide inmates with a seminary education.
“That’s God opening the doors. That’s not me,” Howard said.
Nash Correctional Institute was chosen as the facility to house the program in part because of the potential for expansion and the facility’s willingness to have the program on its campus. In addition, the facility already has an eyeglass shop and onsite print shop that publishes a newspaper.
Inmates like Kendall, who is the assistant editor and writes for the prison publication, said, “It gives me focus. It’s given me a purpose.”
He said the publication at first was only circulated among the inmates, but it now has a circulation of 1,300 subscribers, a large number of whom are on a mailing list outside of the prison.
Howard said he’s just excited because in two years the first graduates will go into other prisons and make an impact there.
He’s in awe at how far this program has come and still can’t fathom why God chose him to operate it through.
“I’ve been really blessed. I just enjoy being around them. It’s just a good program. Some of those guys have a reason to get up every morning,” Howard said.
Wynn said this program is an opportunity for those inmates who are serving 15 years to life who have the potential to make the biggest impact on other inmates. Once out of prison, they can be a contributor to society through Christian education.
“These are guys who decided to do something with their life,” said Rowan Sheriff Kevin Auten.
He said hopefully these men who will graduate in a few years and then be released will make an impact in Rowan County at Piedmont Correctional Institute.
Rowan native Kenneth Fox said he was invited by friend Chris Sifford, who has been involved with Game Plan for Life locally. Fox, who spent time in prison, said he was excited to see what the program was all about.
Fox said he received a construction certification through Southeastern College while in prison.
He said, however, even with credentials, it will take community support to help inmates transition into the community.
He credits Gibbs and Auten with being role models for community support but added that it’s also going to take financing to make programs like this what they need to be.
“If this guy is showing the ability to lead and help rehabilitate other inmates maybe that’s enough to help change people’s minds,” he said of the stigma.
He said law enforcement can only do so much, but it will take investing money in this program and the inmates.
Fox said it was a great experience to meet the inmates, Gibbs and the others who helped make Game Plan For Life’s Field Minister Program possible.
For more information about Game Plan for Life, its Field Ministry Program or to donate visit, www.gameplanforlife.com or call 704-944-5010.
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