Sen. Whitmire recounts transformation of state prison culture
Texas State Senator John Whitmire served as Southwestern Seminary’s chapel speaker, Nov. 1. Facetiously acknowledging the “peculiar” situation of inviting a Democratic senator to chapel, Southwestern President Paige Patterson cited two reasons for this decision.
“I wanted you to have the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to the man who has probably done as much as anybody else to make our baccalaureate in the maximum security unit at Darrington down south of Houston a reality,” Patterson told the chapel audience. “He has worked and labored, and he comes to everything that we do down there. It is absolutely amazing the response that he has from the prisoners; their love for him.”
“Secondly,” Patterson continued, “I wanted him to come here because I wanted him to see you.” Patterson explained with a laugh, “He normally only sees the prisoners down at Darrington; I wanted him to have the opportunity to see the inmates here.”
Whitmire, who has served in the Texas Senate since 1983 and chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, used his time in the pulpit to recount the history of Southwestern’s Darrington extension program. The idea spawned from a visit by Whitmire and representatives from Southwestern Seminary to Angola prison in Louisiana, at which New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary offers a four-year bachelor’s program in Christian ministry.
During the visit, the group attended a Sunday evening worship service in the prison. Whitmire sat among the inmates, and his observations of their behavior led him to quickly write a note to the warden there. “Warden,” the note read, “I’ve never seen so many men serving a life sentence with a smile on their face.”
After additional reconnaissance, Whitmire and the Southwestern representatives talked and prayed. Whitmire then concluded, “Let’s take it to Texas.”
Southwestern’s Darrington extension program, comprising a four-year bachelor’s in biblical studies degree, was born out of this decision. The program began in 2011, and the first class of 33 inmates graduated in May 2015. More than 100 prisoners are currently enrolled, and in addition to transforming the inmates and their families, this program has transformed state prison culture at large.
“They are not trained to go into the free world,” Whitmire explained. “They’re trained to go to other prisons to minister to people who will be getting out sooner than these ministers.
“The ministers are some tough gentlemen, but they’ve given their souls, their lives to the Lord, and they know that if they’re not going to be free in this world, they’re going to be free in the next world. They’re making a tremendous difference and wouldn’t be there without this seminary.”
Whitmire concluded by sharing his favorite passage of Scripture—1 John 4:20-21—which he called a “guiding light” for his life. These two verses explain that one who loves God must also love his brother, and that anyone who does not love his brother cannot love God.
“You can use these Scriptures to change people’s lives and, I think, judge your own life,” Whitmire said. “I certainly use it in my own work.
“How can I profess to love Jesus Christ as my Savior and then not reach and help an inmate, a homeless person, a student who may be having a particular challenge, my family members? Remember the Scripture, and reach out to your classmates, your family members, maybe a total stranger.”