Arkansas Baptists’ investment in prison ministry continuing to see returns
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment in a series celebrating the work that God has done during the first year of the College at Mid-America (CAMA) seminary program at the Varner Maximum Security Unit. Funded primarily through the faithful giving of Arkansas Baptists to the Dixie Jackson Arkansas Missions Offering, the prison seminary is an extension of the work that has been ongoing in the state’s prison system for years. [NB1]
Clayton is an inmate and student in the College at Mid-America seminary whose life has been impacted by the faithfulness of Arkansas Baptists for over four years, even before the seminary program began. Clayton was sentenced to prison eight years ago for second degree murder. For the first few years of incarceration, he says he was in a state of desperation and despair. He cried out for help, longing for release. Unbeknownst to Clayton, the release he was seeking was not from an actual prison cell but from the prison of sin and guilt he had built up in his own heart and mind.
In the midst of his desperation, he heard his mom’s voice constantly reminding him to always call on Jesus Christ, no matter the circumstance. “From that point on, that’s what I’ve done,” Clayton said. He heard about, and immediately joined, the “PAL” program where he ultimately gave his life to Jesus Christ. PAL stands for “Principles and Application for Life.”
PAL is a one-year voluntary program for inmates that helps them study and learn what the Bible teaches and how to apply Biblical principles to practical life situations. Currently, twelve Department of Correction Units in Arkansas offer this program. In 10 of these prisons, the PAL inmates are housed together in the same barracks.
Two units have APAL, which is “Advanced Principles and Application for Life.” This year-and-a-half program includes many of the same elements of PAL but adds classes on re-entry and treatment, especially dealing with addictive behaviors. At any given time, there are approximately 550 inmates in PAL and APAL throughout the prison system. The Dixie Jackson Arkansas Missions offering provides funds to assist these programs with curriculum and equipment.
Since PAL’s inception in 1998, the prison has seen the recidivism rate for graduates run far below that of other inmates. Today, in 2020, there are many people in Arkansas communities serving as ministry leaders in churches and other organizations who will testify that the change in their lives is largely due to their participation in PAL.
As part of the PAL program, Clayton served as a faith-based coach and counselor for the prison. After completing the program, he was invited by the prison chaplain to sign up for the new CAMA seminary. Clayton prayed about it and eventually was chosen from among thirty other applicants from his unit to transfer and join the other seminary students at Varner. He believes that was proof that Jesus has a plan for his life. “And I’m really excited to see what’s next for me,” Clayton said.
When he was first sentenced eight years ago, Clayton says he really didn’t understand the full impact of his actions. His time in the PAL and CAMA programs helped bring clarity and personal accountability. “Then I didn't really know what I'd done - the impact I caused - until coming to Christ, learning about Christ and basically getting educated to know that the choices I made eight years ago affected a lot of people. Not only my victim's family, but my family as well.” In spite of his past, Clayton says that God has used him and allowed him opportunities to minister to others during his time at Varner. He sees God working and opening doors that he never thought possible, including the moment he first arrived after being transferred from his previous unit.
Clayton had the opportunity to “bump into” his victim’s uncle on that first day. The man was working as a guard. Clayton saw him talking to another guard and immediately recognized him. Not sure of what would happen, Clayton nervously approached the man and began to talk to him. From that initial conversation, God allowed the two men to develop a relationship. Clayton was able to confess what he had done and ask for forgiveness. “This man actually accepted me with open arms. He forgave me for what I had done. Beyond just offering forgiveness, he opened a relationship. Even today, he calls me friend.”
Clayton couldn’t believe that he could be forgiven, knowing how badly he had hurt this man’s family. “It's only God's doing, it's nothing I've done. It's all Christ. And I thank Christ for letting me join this program because I could see He’s got His hand in the midst of my life.”
Clayton says the CAMA program has been both a blessing and a challenge. He credits Dr. Mark Thompson and his lessons for pushing him to reach his full potential. “CAMA has been helping me to become a better me. It's been teaching me deep studies of our Lord Jesus Christ along with general knowledge. It’s taught me a lot of good things that I can use once I get up out of here.” Clayton was amazed to discover that there are thousands of people who for years have been praying and giving to support him in his journey through the PAL and CAMA programs. He wants to thank Arkansas Baptists and let them know that their efforts are not in vain. “Not only did you give me hope, but you gave my family hope. I am one of the first males out of my momma’s household to go to an accredited college and hopefully gain a bachelor's degree in four years. Thank you for doing this for me and my family. Because of you, I can have a future once I get out of here.”