Everything “dark” a man could do, Robert Hyde had done. For Paul Will, life had become “permanently empty.”
The downward spiral into violent crime that eventually landed Will and Hyde in prison at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana had once seemed unstoppable, much less redeemable.
“But … Jesus,” Will explained. The former prisoner-turned-pastor’s explanation of transformation was simple, but his long journey toward new life was not. Neither was Hyde’s.
Will and Hyde shared their stories in chapel Oct. 11 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jamie Dew, president, hosted the conversation where Will and Hyde shared about a radical life change that took each from prisoner to seminary graduate to pastor, all at the most unlikely of places — the Angola prison.
Once called the “bloodiest prison” in the nation, Angola’s own transformation began when NOBTS opened an undergraduate program there in 1994. Within a decade, the violence had calmed to near non-existence and drew national media attention for its success.
“I got sent to prison — Angola — and NOBTS was there,” Will said. “It transformed my life.”
To Angola and beyond
A long history, wide connections, and the dedication of many brought about the program that now encompasses several prisons and helped spark similar work by other Southern Baptist seminaries.
The NOBTS program began under former President Landrum Leavell, but grew and developed under Chuck Kelley, who became president in 1996.
“It was Dr. Kelley who really through the institution’s resources and energies entered this,” Dew said. “God used that in a profound way to make an impact in Angola, and now nationally. There’s a lot of credit due Dr. Kelley.”
The NOBTS program at Angola has intertwined the stories of many, including Dew’s own friendship with Will and Hyde. Dew first visited Angola in 2014 to observe the program, while serving then as dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s college. Dew, and the academic team he brought with him, returned home to North Carolina to begin the work of starting a similar program there.
“It was a great joy to have Paul Will and Robert Hyde in chapel to spotlight what God has done in their lives and in our prison program,” Dew said. “These are faithful brothers and God’s done tremendous work in their lives.”
Today, Will works in the communications office of Prison Seminaries Foundation and at the Bartow Baptist Association in Georgia, Lottie Moon’s home association.
Hyde now works for his former warden, Burl Cain, as director of programs, such as re-entry, early release, vocational tech, and others, at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Mississippi.
Freefall into prison
Born to a teenage mother and fatherless, Will’s drug and alcohol habits started early. By age 21, his thousand-dollar-a-week heroin habit landed him in rehab, a short stop before coming to New Orleans.
“Paralyzed” by hopelessness, Will climbed into a car with a gun one night, intending to force the driver to drive him to the place where he would commit suicide.
“If you stare into nothing long enough and hard enough, and focused enough, and you participate in hopeless activity, you become … permanently empty,” Will said. Angola was Will’s next stop.
For Hyde, his trajectory in life was set early by the abuse he, his brother and mother suffered at the hands of a stepfather. By age six, Hyde lost his mother to the violent abuse. Hyde’s anger toward bullies and abusers grew until a conviction of manslaughter sent him to prison.
“I got to the point that I didn’t want to look in the mirror. I couldn’t stand who I was,” Hyde said. He added, “I had become the person I hated.”
Hungry, then filled
After a Hispanic minister shared the gospel with him, Will realized that God was his father, and his lifelong yearning for a father was finally satisfied.
“I immediately knew that I had a different identity, too,” Will said. “I could now live differently than I had always lived.”
For Hyde, conviction overwhelmed him in his cell at Richland Parish Detention Center, Rayville, Louisiana, and his new life in Christ began. Years later, Hyde requested a transfer to Angola so he could study in the NOBTS program.
Both men hold associate, bachelor, and master degrees from NOBTS and credit the seminary’s faculty with helping them grow in faith and find stability in life.
“They re-parented me,” Will said. “They brought me back from a trauma state to a new state of equilibrium to a state of sonship.”
Hyde’s studies brought growth, and for the first time in his life he realized it was possible to become the man God intended him to be, Hyde recounted.
“I began a process of learning all the theological language, learning how to reorient my entire mind around true church history, true Scripture, and the hermeneutic traditions and all the ways we should properly look at things,” Hyde said. “And it radically changed everything for me.”
Prisoners to pastors
Planting a church inside prison walls required patience and persistence but Grace Baptist Church, believed to be the first, fully constituted Southern Baptist Church inside prison walls, was unanimously accepted into the Washington Baptist Association in 2015. Will was its founding pastor.
When others pointed out that a church inside a prison had never been done before, Will reminded them that “Jesus was the one who came out of the grave.”
“Jesus taught me that He specializes in ‘nevers,’” Will said.
Will served as senior pastor until Hyde transitioned into the role prior to Will’s release in 2020. Hyde served as senior pastor until his release earlier this year.
While the NOBTS seminary education provides an education, its real impact is much deeper, Hyde explained.
“When you have church in prison and when you have people … willing to come and give us the benefit of the doubt, then you allow us to be re-humanized,” Hyde said. “You allow us to be brought back into the love of the church at large.”
‘God can save anyone’
In chapel, Dew pointed to Isaiah 42:2-3, a passage that speaks of the Messiah but also the people the Messiah would come to save.
“These are references to the marginalized, references to the ‘throw-aways’ of society that normally folks don’t care about,” Dew said. “It says of our Messiah there, a prophecy of him, that these are precisely the people that He will love and care for. We got to see that in Angola, God doing what only God can do.”
Will pointed to the irony that he came from the mission field of the prison — what he termed “the last geographic frontier” in missions— to being a missionary in the home place of “one of the SBC’s most beloved missionaries.” In his role at Bartow Association, Will develops strategic outreach programs for the marginalized such as the homeless community or those dealing with substance abuse.
“Their story is beautiful. God’s grace is amazing,” Dew said of Will and Hyde. “I’m so proud of these brothers and all that they represent.”