Death Row Inmates Become Missionary Prayer Warriors
by Erich Bridges
Peering through the bars, he often finds John lying face down on the concrete floor, his head up under his bunk.
"Who you prayin’ for, John?" whispers Tillery, minister of college students and missions at First Baptist Church, Moss Bluff in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
John’s face emerges from under the bunk with a broad grin.
"I’m prayin’ for the Sherpa, Jack," he answers. "Prayin’ for the Sherpa!"
That would be the Sherpa
John may be on death row at
Tillery helped connect John
and other Christian inmates at
In 1997, Tillery....read
the best-selling book "Into Thin Air," which recounts
the deaths of several climbers in a harrowing accident on
high-altitude pulmonary edema," Tillery says. "I read about all these
He has since led multiple
teams on prayer treks to the mountain villages of the Khumbu Sherpa (Everest
soars above the
"Later, we packed our backs and hiked 160 miles to an altitude of almost 18,000 feet [5½ kilometers]," Tillery says.
His teams have made crucial contacts in villages – opening the door to long-term ministry and church planting.
Back home, Tillery got
"I asked to be
assigned to death row," he recalls. "I went there and just connected
to those guys in a way that I never dreamed I would. You shake a hand and you
know that hand has most likely taken the life of someone else. But I tell people
from my church unashamedly that some of my very best friends are inmates at
This isn’t "jailhouse religion." These guys are serious believers – and committed intercessors. Just check out the well-thumbed Sherpa prayer calendars hanging prominently on the walls of their cells.
Before Tillery leads a
volunteer trip to
One of his most faithful
letter writers is an inmate who landed at
"The Lord has captured his heart and he now has such a tender, sweet spirit," Tillery says. "Before we go anywhere he is ready and committed to pray for us. It just intrigues me what God can do in the heart of a man."
When Tillery and his church
helped bring a Sherpa boy to the
"I came back last time and reported to them that the little boy’s mother was saved, and that we saw our first believers in some of the Sherpa villages up there, they just went nuts," Tillery reports. "They were so excited to think, ‘I really made a difference on the other side of the world.’"
Recently, Tillery brought a friend with him to visit John and other prayer partners on death row. "Joshua" (name changed for security reasons) is a Southern Baptist worker with the International Mission Board. He and his wife, "Rebecca," lead a mission team assigned to reach the Sherpa with the Good News of Jesus.
"When John found out we were working with the Sherpa, he said, ‘You just go do what you need to do. I got your back [covered]. You do the work and I’ll take care of everything else [through prayer],’" Joshua recounts, shaking his head in wonder.
"That’s a pretty
awesome thing. You pray and you search for this kind of partnership. God was
doing it at the prison, and we didn’t even know about it. We knew something was
going on, but not like this. There’s about 90 guys on death row, and eight of
them are fervently praying for the Sherpa and
One inmate sang a rap song for Joshua about God’s grace. Another young convict gave him two cross-shaped bookmarks woven from cloth.
"I want you to have one and I want you to take one to the Sherpa guy that I’ve been praying for by name," the convict told Joshua. "Every time you see it, know that you’re being prayed for."
During a worship service at the prison, Joshua and Rebecca spotted another inmate lying flat on the floor.
"When he stood up there was this huge puddle where he had been lying there crying and praying," Rebecca says. "I had not seen that in such a long time. I thought, ‘This man has committed serious crimes. He’s in here for life. He is condemned in our justice system, yet he is forgiven.’
"We were so humbled that these men, most of whom will never be paroled, were so openly praising and worshiping our Lord in spite of their circumstances. It was a picture of the beauty of the church and the freedom we have in Christ, whether or not we have freedom physically."
Who turned a
maximum-security penitentiary once known as the "bloodiest prison in
The short answer: Warden Burl Cain. He arrived in 1995 to oversee more than 5,000 inmates living behind barbed wire on the 18,000-acre network of prison camps. The penitentiary was ravaged by violence, rape and murder as hardened, hopeless "lifers" turned on each other.
Cain, a committed
Christian, rejected the "lock ‘em up and throw away the key"
philosophy and transformed the prison into a community designed for moral and
Not everyone at
The chaplains tell them
about the hope available at
"Warden Cain is passionate about doing things that instill hope," Tillery says. "They actually send some of the inmates as ‘missionaries’ to other state institutions to serve as chaplains. These are some neat things Warden Cain has done to give these men a sense of purpose in their lives.
"That’s his goal, and that’s our goal –- to instill into them that they can have a purpose right there."
If the answers to prayer
for the Sherpa people of
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