ROSHARON, Texas - Thirty-nine men in identical white uniforms bowed their heads, sang, laughed, clapped, cheered and prayed as they were formally installed Monday as the state's first class of seminarians studying to become ministers under a new program operating totally behind prison walls.
"Most of us in here haven't done anything good in our lives," Bible student Javier Sanchez, 33, of Houston, said. "It's life changing. It's like there's still hope."
Like his fellow seminarians assembled for a convocation at the chapel of the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Sanchez wears the white suit of a Texas prison inmate. He has at least 10 years left on a lengthy prison term before he becomes eligible for parole, hasn't been involved in serious trouble since his imprisonment, has a high school diploma or equivalent and has shown an aptitude that he can succeed in completing the four-year program that leads to a bachelor's degree in Biblical studies.
Sanchez has been locked up since 2003 with a 45-year sentence for aggravated robbery.
Armed with his degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, he'll be assigned to a Texas prison to minister to the spiritual needs of fellow inmates.
"I think it's amazing to watch God work here in prison," Sanchez said.
The nondenominational program is modeled after a similar project in Louisiana that's credited with reducing inmate violence by 70 percent since beginning in 1995. The Texas project, an extension of the Fort Worth-based seminary, uses no state money and is financed with private donations.
"The hand of God has been in this project," said Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who pushed the program with Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire after they both visited the Louisiana prison at Angola.
"I'd never seen so many people serving life sentences with smiles on their face," Whitmire said. "We were committed to taking this back to Texas."
Brad Livingston, executive director of the criminal justice department, said it's hoped the program's success will spawn a second class next year and then continue annually.
"There will be some challenges, but I believe we've put the pieces in place for success here," he told the inmates, survivors from among 600 who expressed interest in joining the program. Each of them received a new leather-bound Bible personalized with his name inscribed on the book. "This is a tremendous opportunity. I believe this partnership is built to last."
The Darrington Unit opened in 1917, making it one of the oldest of Texas' 111 prisons. The maximum security lockup traditionally has been one of the toughest.
Livingston said it was selected because of its proximity to the Baptist seminary's resources in Houston, about an hour's drive to the north.
"This is like draft day in the NFL and y'all are first-round draft picks," Patrick told the prisoners, who cheered. "But there's more on the line than a Super Bowl. It's not about your past, it's about your future."
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said ever since the beginning of Christianity prisoners have been considered important.
"There's always been an emphasis on the importance of transforming lives of people as best as you could," he said. "We're all in it together, studying to allow the word of God to produce fruits of spirit."
Brandon Authement, 29, of Orange, said when he saw an application for the program he prayed about it.
"God blessed me by pushing my application through," said Authement, locked up since August 2005 for a murder in Austin. "I'm hoping this will have a positive effect on society. This is really a blessing. Who would have dreamed this? This is an honor to be in the seminary."
He said he grew up "a pastor's son" who "went sideways."
Asked his father's reaction to his enrolling in the seminary, he replied: "He's ecstatic. We've become more kindred spirits. I have a lot of people praying for me."
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