Cover Story, December 2015

Free at Last Prison Ministries: Distributing “Ministry from the Inside”, Book to Prisons

by Mark Hunter

image001-2John and Andi Bayer are taking their Free at Last Prison Ministries to the next level.

For several decades the Baton Rouge couple has witnessed to thousands of prisoners across the state and nation, but now they want to reach every prison in America with at least one copy of a book they recently published, “Ministry from the Inside.” Russell Nestor, a man serving 35 years in a federal penitentiary, wrote the 250-page book by hand and the Bayers typed it up and had it printed.

“We believe God has a special unconditional love for inmates,” John Bayer said. “Great men of God, such as Peter, Paul, Samson, James, John the Baptist, Joseph, and Jeremiah all were in jail.”

“Men like David, Moses and Jacob were murderers, adulterers and thieves, but when they called on God and repented – God cleaned them up and used them mightily to advance his Kingdom forward,” Bayer said. “God is still calling inmates today – He still cleans them up and uses them in the ministry.”

The book, also called “A Christian Inmate’s Manual,” details topics such as: humility, honesty, forgiveness, joy and other Christian values, or, in other words, how to have a good testimony while in prison.

The Bayers printed 5,000 copies and have distributed 3,500, including 100 to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary program at Angola.

“We only have 1,500 left and we now have a workbook to go with it but we don’t have the funds to get it printed,” Bayer said.

They’ve received high praise for the book from prison officials including Angola Warden Burl Cain who wrote, “This book is a MUST READ for any prison official and offender. Best guide I have seen other than the Bible. Teaches how to make it, deal with yourself, and rehabilitate morally.”

Tim O’Dell, director of Chaplaincy, for Corrections Corporation of America, writes that the book “is a practical guide to living out one’s Christian witness while incarcerated.”

Bayer said he’s already seen positive changes in the offenders who have read it.

“When you see Aryan Brotherhood men – the white gang – getting saved and loving the black inmates around them – when before they would kill them – only God could have done that in that man’s life,” Bayer said. “God is coming off the page and teaching them how to live.”


The Bayers, who are both ordained ministers, are approved to visit 65 prisons in 22 states, including the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), facilities.

They freely admit there is a special place in their hearts for inmates because, if not for the grace of God, they might be in prison. They both lived lives of crime, they said, but shortly after they were married in 1975, while watching a 700 Club television program, they received Jesus Christ as their Savior.

“When you live a lifestyle of sin, crime, mafia involvement, [and] the Ku Klux Klan, and you come from a life where you marry a girl with a heroin addiction [who] was a prostitute – and we got saved!” John Bayer declared. “Something took place in our life!”

“Those that have been forgiven much – love much,” he said. “That compels us to go!”

“The Lord put compassion in our hearts to reach back into where we came out of,” Andi Bayer added. “We could have been there – behind bars – but we didn’t get caught.”

They are asking the Christian community, especially the churches, for financial help printing and distributing 10,000 books and workbooks at a cost of $10 each.

“We are all the body of Christ and we should be working together,” John Bayer said. “God is doing something here. There is a great harvest of souls coming out from behind prison bars in these latter days.”

For more information, call John Bayer at 225-810-6108, or visit their web site at:

Cover Story, December 2015

From Prison to Pastor: Ashanti Witherspoon’s Story of Redemption

by Krista Bordelon

IMG_0486Meeting Ashanti Witherspoon today, one would never guess of his dark past, let alone imagine that he should be sitting in a cell at one of the most violent prisons in America after being sentenced to 75 years with no possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.

“‘God will become the light that illuminates the dark place.’ My aunt’s words came back to me [as I sat in the prison cell], and I realized that my life had finally turned around… Then I realized, my life had finally turned around and I was supposed to die there.”

Growing up in Chicago, Ashanti had a typical family. His parents divorced when he was young and his dad completely disappeared from his life. He remembers the many promises his father made to come visit, yet never showed up. Specifically, the moment when he sat at the window as his mother told him not to worry, that his dad loved him, that he would show up, but Ashanti knew he wouldn’t. That was the moment that Ashanti said, “started the pain in his heart.” From that moment on, he was filled with hatred, anger, and bitterness.

“I was young, I was intelligent, and I was aggressive, so they had me in martial arts classes. I had the tools to succeed in a legitimate, structured environment, but also the weapons to succeed in the street because I could fight. Little by little my grades stared to go down and I started drifting. I was involved in many community groups, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. Before, I was disciplined with martial arts, but now I just went out and started picking fights. I wanted to fight a lot.”

At 11, Ashanti’s mother finally allowed him to go stay with his cousin in an effort to appease him. He remembers his aunt telling her, “I hope this doesn’t happen, but I believe you will regret this decision for the rest of your life.” Ashanti describes looking out the window that night waiting for his aunt to go to bed and watching the police, the pimps, and the gangsters all active in the streets outside. “It was like watching a movie,” he says. As soon as she went to bed they snuck across the street to 67th and Blackstone where Ashanti was introduced to the friends that would change his life.

His cousin had been bragging about Ashanti’s karate skills to a local gang. That gang happened to be the Blackstone Rangers, which grew to be the largest gang in Chicago (later known as Black P Stone Nation). “That was when my life began to change. When the leader stepped from the back, after I [an 11 year old] had taken down two men, he asked me to join.”

From that moment on Ashanti was heavily involved in the gang, and as it grew into what was known as a “super gang” he rose to become a leader of one of the branches.

IMG_0497“I left Chicago on the run from criminal charges in July of 1971, traveling around the United States to avoid prosecution. In January of 1972, under the influence of LSD, I committed an armed robbery, which turned into a shootout with the police. Two officers were shot, my co-defendant was shot once in the stomach, and I was shot twice with a .357 magnum. The first bullet hit the left side of my hip and traveled through my body and exited on the right. Miraculously, it did not touch a bone or an organ. The second entered the right side of my face, traveled upward into my head, and stopped in my temple.”

“I know it was the prayers that kept me alive. My aunt always said that God had a special destiny for me, and when I left Chicago on the run she told me she was going to pray that I didn’t get killed before I fulfilled that special destiny.”

The day Ashanti went on the run he sat down to talk to his uncle who had been in prison for 25 years in a Tennessee State Penitentiary. “I could tell that he was really sincere, the same way I am when I talk to these young people, but I told him, ‘Uncle, I appreciate what you’re saying, but you’re about 10 years too late, I’m a full-fledged criminal,’ he just stood there and cried after I said that.”

Then his aunt spoke the words that would later return to him as he gave his life to Christ in a cell at Angola Penitentiary. “She said, ‘I want you to remember these words. One day you will find yourself in a deep, dark hole, and when you find yourself in that place it’s going to feel like all the oxygen has been taken out from around you, there’s not going to be a cool breeze anywhere, it will feel like you are totally abandoned, like you are totally lost, that even if you scream out no one will hear you. The day you find yourself in that situation remember you can get on your knees, eliminate your pride, and cry out to Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come into your life and it will change things. And you can walk from there for the rest of your life. God will become the light that illuminates the dark place.”

“I went in determined to do whatever was necessary to survive. I was labeled a militant by the prison system because I was rebellious to authority, and that lifestyle eventually landed me in maximum security.” Ashanti learned law while in maximum security and became a jailhouse lawyer filing litigation against everything he thought was wrong. Those who came in for prison ministry caught his attention. “The more you read the more it renews your mind just like the [Scripture says]. Little by little it started stirring up memories of my childhood, of happy times in my life. The straw that broke the camel’s back was thinking about my daughter, who had been born 3 1/2 months after my incarceration. I still had not even seen my daughter.”

“One night I was thinking about my life, I blamed everybody in the world for all the bad decisions I made. I was convinced there was some constitutional violation they had committed that was going to get me out, but it was never going to happen.

Satan will have you chasing illusions forever. At that moment the Holy Spirit took the blinders off my eyes, and I saw the real world. I really was in the bloodiest prison in America. I really was going to die there if I didn’t change. And it felt exactly like my aunt had once described.”

IMG_0493-2Ashanti once believed he was on track to take down the whole system “with a piece of paper”, but his thoughts shifted to proving his worth in the system instead. “I became a different person. I realized I had just made a promise to live differently, but I was still in prison. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I asked God to give me the strength to maintain focus.” The past suits he had filed against corrections officers, etc. prevented his newfound faith from being taken seriously.

“I just wanted out of maximum security, so I could get back into population to prove myself.”

A 27-day hunger strike and an officer that decided to take a chance on him finally got Ashanti back into population. It was there he began working his way up to becoming an instructor in the prison education system and involved himself in prison ministries. He became an anger management counselor, substance abuse counselor, and public speaking instructor, sat on the board of many inmate-run organizations, and developed a trade in graphic design and transactional analysis. Finally after 20 years the administration allowed him to travel outside of the prison system to speak as a means to deter young people from lives of crime.

A law change eventually allowed Ashanti to go up for parole, but he was denied over and over. It wasn’t until his story was featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary “The Farm: Life Inside Angola” that his parole was granted, in June of

1999, 27 ½ years after his incarceration. “All I knew was when I got out I wanted real freedom. I could have escaped many times, but that was never what I desired.” So Ashanti, a man once fighting against the system, waited on the system to free him. And free he is.

Today Ashanti is an international speaker heavily involved in prison ministry, re-entry programs, and transition teams. He is involved in organizations including Kairos, AMI kids, C.O.P.E. and B.R.A.V.E. as well as pastoring The New Ruach Christian Church in Baton Rouge and the Right Road Christian Center in Lafayette. He wrote three books while in prison, “Loving God” versions 1, 2, and 3. In addition to his wife being heavily involved in his ministry, he and his daughter are advocates for keeping children in contact with their incarcerated parents. Contact him at

Cover Story, December 2015

The Bella Bowman Foundation: Caring for Families in Their Darkest Hour

by Beth Townsend

Image 8Childhood cancer is a dark world, yet Kim and Trey Bowman are determined to bring light into that place for families who now face a similar journey as they once did. In February 2012 the young couple started the Bella Bowman Foundation. Kim finds it difficult to disguise the heartache, even these years later, as she tells the story, “I needed to do something to keep her (Bella’s) memory alive. My grief led me in that direction. I’ve learned that you have to go through it to get through it.” Kim met Trey when they were students at Southeastern in Hammond, and they dated four years before marrying. “By the time we had Bella, I was 30,” Kim shared. The young couple was somewhat overwhelmed, like most new parents, but felt fully blessed by the new arrival. Because Bella was unusually small, she was constantly tested to make sure she was healthy. “She didn’t have normal growth milestones, so there was reason for some alarm,” Kim remembered. Most tests came back normal, yet each wait on phone calls for the results was stressful. “We feel that we have a direct line to God!” she says. “There had been a lot of people praying for us for a long time before Bella got diagnosed with cancer.” “We got pregnant when Bella was about three [and] had Baylor when Bella was four,” Kim recounts. Then there came a diagnosis that Bella had Celiac Disease. It gave a sense of relief that finally something could be pinpointed. The family changed its diet, with Kim very thankful for solid information that offered solutions. But even after going gluten-free, things did not improve for Bella. “Life went on, our children grew together. In 2010, Bella was 7, Baylor 3. That March, Bella started to throw up, we assumed she was coming down with something.” From March until Bella’s diagnosis on New Years Day 2011, Bella threw up five or six times a day almost every day of every week. Kim and Trey took her to numerous doctors who had varying opinions. Image-2-2“On Christmas morning, we were opening presents and saw that look in her eye, she was about to throw up. I knew something wasn’t right, it got worse and she became dehydrated.” Bella was admitted to the hospital to treat the dehydration and again received more tests, saw more doctors, which lead to more questions. “Again everything came back normal. She had stopped throwing up because they gave her this wonderful new drug,” Kim recalled. The doctor sent them home. However, this time Kim took charge telling him, “If Bella gets sick one more time, we are coming back.” Bella did get sick, they did go back, and this time Kim requested an MRI of her daughter’s brain. “I don’t know why, I just had this gut feeling. I prayed so, so hard that night. I said, ‘God give us an answer so we can move forward. We will do whatever it takes.’” An MRI was scheduled the next day, “I knew something was wrong,” Kim remembered. After months of unexplained illness, Kim and Trey Bowman waited for the results of a brain scan completed on their 7-year-old daughter. She and Trey went back to Bella’s hospital room when the radiologist called. “When the radiologist said he was coming up to talk to us, I just knew,” Kim says. Cancer. “From there, Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital took us on and then St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis got involved,” Kim recalls. Doctor after doctor recommended surgery to know exactly what type of tumor it was. Once again, little Bella was a champ, “She was like, ok what’s next?” Kim says. “That is how the now famous red dot story came about. Trey brought in a picture of the brain that the doctor had drawn, pointing where the tumor was. He said ‘see this little red dot right here? That is what is making you so sick. The doctors are going to take it out and you are going to feel better.’” phone 263Kim continued, “Before surgery I was lying in the bed with her, surrounded by family and friends. Our pastor was there, and news got around we were about to pray for Bella.” Tearing up, Kim recalls, “All of a sudden the room became crowded; nurses from around the hospital filed in, we said this wonderful prayer, Bella was just smiling. I have this mental picture of that moment and remember exactly how we both felt after that.” The surgery was successful. Bella’s first words were, “Is the red dot gone?” That meant she was swallowing and breathing, all good news. Three days later she was talking and then it was back to treatment. “First, we went to St. Jude’s. The doctors and staff were amazing,” Kim emphasized with obvious gratefulness. The treatment plan included proton radiation—33 treatments to Bella’s brain stem. After St. Jude’s physicians laid out the plan, they went to Jacksonville, Fla., in February for the radiation treatments—one bout of radiation, 5-days a week, until 33 treatments were completed. Bella did great during her radiation therapy and finally it was time to go home. In May Bella started getting tutored by her teachers to get caught up with school. Now, it seemed that the worst was behind them and that the young Bowman family was in a good place. “We had a wonderful summer,” Kim remembered. IMG_0985For the young parents, everything else was put on hold. “I’m a hair dresser, so I had no income. I did not work pretty much from Christmas time for the entire year. Trey got laid off in December, right before we found out about her brain tumor. He had no job for nine months. He was interviewing during this process while we were in St. Jude. He would fly off somewhere to interview, [and] other times he would go home to be with Baylor.” Both maternal and fraternal grandparents were lifesavers. Many people sent care packages, and friends and family held fundraisers to help pay the mounting medical bills. “It took a toll on our family. When your child is diagnosed with cancer, your life stops,” Kim added, her face showing the stark reality of the challenges too many young parents face. In August, the family went to visit relatives in Atlanta. “It was weird. Bella didn’t want to walk up and down the stairs. When we got home we noticed she was slurring, it looked like she’d had a stroke. The side of her mouth was drooping.” Again, the young mother knew something was very wrong. “We called the doctor at St. Jude on the way back from Atlanta and they said, ‘come tomorrow.’” Kim and Trey took her immediately. After the scan, the doctor informed Trey and Kim that there was no tumor. Instead, Bella had a rare side effect of radiation called Necrosis. He began to explain that it’s something that can happen after radiation and unfortunately there was no cure, only limited experimental options. “There were two,” Kim shared. “Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber Therapy (HBO) or a different chemo that they use for breast cancer.” The Bowmans chose the HBO treatment. “We did 60 treatments. That was everyday for two or three hours a day,” Kim explained. Bella was not getting better, but actually worse. She used a walker, then a stroller, then a wheel chair. She got scoliosis, which led to get back braces. The child’s health slowly declined. Her parents decided to try chemo; it was Bella’s last hope. “Once we realized it wasn’t working, I had that gut feeling again. It’s me, my momma, Baylor and Bella. We went to go see the doctor. I said ‘I want to go home.’” They packed up that day. Trey was in Sweden when Kim told him they were going home and asked him to come home. Back at Our Lady of the Lake, they put Bella on a ventilator and trek, acknowledging she may not speak again. “I did not think that she was going to survive,” Kim spoke through tears. Not knowing if Trey would make it home in time, Kim said, “I will never know how that felt for him. He didn’t know if she would be alive, on a flight for eleven hours, can’t call or text or talk.” Trey made it back and sat down with his wife. For the first time in 24 hours they spoke. “I don’t think we should keep her alive, I don’t think she would want that.” They were in agreement, knowing what was ahead for them. “This disease is eating up her brain stem. We are not going to put her through that. We are going to enjoy these last days with her.” Image-1-2“And we did,” Kim smiled as she remembered, still teary-eyed as she recalled those moments. “We had a wonderful Christmas. There were two occasions when Bella saw Mary. She had this infatuation with the Catholic religion, though none of us are Catholic. When we were at St. Jude’s, I would read to her about Mary and a nun named Bernadette and the rosary beads. She loved all that.” It was a rough ten days from when the Bowmans decided to take Bella off of the ventilator. Every day someone special came to visit: The Make-a-Wish Foundation had someone from Universal Studios fly in with the newly released Chipmunk movie for a final family movie night with Bella. The night before she passed away, Miss Louisiana brought her a crown. “That night they woke us up about midnight, Bella was not responsive. She died at 6:22 a.m. in her daddy’s arms,” Kim recalled through tears. “The hospital let us have a room across from Bella’s. My mother-in-law and Baylor slept in there, as I didn’t want Baylor to be in the room when Bella passed away. Though such a sad time, many things happened that were gifts from God to get us through it,” she concluded. Kim and Trey needed time to heal. “Our faith was strong, we found friends that were there for us. I learned how to pray… that God is in control and he gives you gifts during the struggles.” Kim acknowledged that regardless, they realized the work ahead for them. “Our marriage had been tested. No one understands this until you live it. Trey and I grieve differently. We went to grief and marriage counseling because we were separated for an entire year. Counseling was a good step for both of us. I am still worried about Baylor; she is eight and looks just like Bella. We try to make everything positive, but she does not understand.”


“Our foundation works a lot with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital as a St. Jude- affiliate,” Kim explains. “If your child gets diagnosed with cancer in our community, you are going to Our Lady of the Lake. There are only six St. Jude’s affiliates in the United States and we have one of them in our community, which is wonderful.” The foundation’s mission is to create and support research initiatives for pediatric brain cancer, fund new and continuous education, and offer Comfort Care to others. The foundation focuses on several areas, however, Trey and Kim have a passion for the Comfort Care aspect, as Bella’s last days of life were so very special. “We donate Comfort Care bags to families,” Kim says. “Hopefully we can give them to everyone that comes to the hospital. With St. Jude clinic we do chemo parties. We bring gifts, we do princess visits twice a month, we have Christmas, and Santa comes.” BBB_SaveDate2016_4x6v3The long-term goal for the foundation, which is most important to Kim, is Bella’s House— a hospice house for children. “We want to make it as special for the child and the whole family, just like we had ten days with Bella.” With a growing foundation, Kim is learning to juggle her time. “I work part-time. SoHo salon has been amazing. The girl I work for, Becky Broussard is supportive, she lets me sell shirts in the salon, and I do haircuts for kids with cancer at her place. They support our foundation at the salon. Working has been good therapy.” Kim’s newfound passion is driven by her compassion. They truly have a heart for the mission of the Bella Bowman Foundation. “Trey and I both said when Bella was battling, ‘when we get through all this, we are going to give back.’” Bella’s Ball is the foundation’s signature event each year. Next year it will be on March 10th at the L’Auberge in Baton Rouge. “Every year I change it up a little bit, but we still have our silent and live auction,” Kim says with enthusiasm. “It’s is a great time, and we raise a lot of money. We raised almost $200,000 this year!” One of the Bowman’s missions is to share their story so they can help others. From Kim’s perspective, “I recommend families get support immediately. My grief counselor sent me to a support group. It’s an amazing group for parents that have lost children. It has gotten me through so many things; I go once a month. Take time to grieve, it is ok to be sad or mad. The only thing that got me through this is my faith. I still have bad days, I still cry, I still get angry. I got angry the other day at God and then I just prayed, then He makes me feel better.” Kim understands that when a family goes through a crisis, people don’t know what to say. She concludes, “Don’t try to make it better, don’t say ‘I know how you are feeling.’ Just do for them the things you think they need.”

Cover Story, December 2015

Joyce Burges: Finding Destiny in Desperation

by Jehan Seals

TCG_2842 02Jesus is the light we all seek just as the three wise men did during the time of Jesus’ birth. They sought light in dark world; that light, which is Christ, ultimately saved all of our lives. Jesus has given us that same power to create light in a dark world and it begins within us.

“It’s sometimes in our desperation that destiny is found,” says Joyce Burges. “Finding myself in a teenage pregnancy left little room for the future I had sought. While singing in a school choir I had been chosen to receive a scholarship to enter college, but that changed it all. My parents were disappointed, and I didn’t know where to turn. As I sat in my bedroom alone in July 1976, wearing my little brown dress, God proposed to me the gift of salvation. He said, ‘take a chance on me.’” That night Joyce found herself at the mercy of God and without hesitation accepted the gift of salvation.

“I had my son in October and married his father one year later.” Together with Eric Burges, her husband of 40+ years, she went on to discover how the light of Jesus Christ might be shared through their lives. Their story began here in Baton Rouge; wife of one husband, mother of five children, the early years proved to be conditioning them for what would lie ahead. With a large family and career goals aside, Joyce comfortably took on the role of motherhood.

“My children were my pride and joy; being their mom was a career I valued.” Joyce explains how in her darkest hour, God was light to guide them. “I received a call from my son’s teacher requesting a parent teacher conference to discuss his grades. In the meeting we were told that because our son’s GPA had gone from a 3.0 to 2.8 we would need to place him in another school. The words were hard to stomach, and my husband and I were heartbroken.” The Burgeses made the decision to talk to some of their friends from church for guidance. She explains how it was there in church that the idea of home schooling became a reality.

“A friend from church took us under her wing and guided us through the home-school process,” Joyce says. Shortly after, they began home schooling their kids. With research, the Burgeses soon got involved with home school conferences to help build their knowledge and also gain support.

J_E2009However, attending these home schooling conferences across the country quickly created a call to action for the Burgeses. “Over the course of three years my husband and I saw less than five [African-American] couples attending these national conferences,” she says. “With less than five African-American speakers and minimal black history information available, my husband got the idea to start an organization that reached out to African-Americans.”

“We had great supporters. We turned to organizations like Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and Christian Home Educators Fellowship (CHEF), [and] these organizations aided the program financially,” Joyce says. National Black Home Educators (NBHE) officially began in 2000 and since then, NBHE has been a guiding light in the home-school process for those near and far. National Black Home Educators has partnered with businesses such as Barnes and Noble, local libraries, and churches across the country that support home schooling, and due to their work empowering parents and communities, the Burges family has been featured in numerous national publications and broadcasts.

“I believe if parents value the next generation, they will call for their children to do what they need to do versus what they want to do.” The key is to be involved, says Burges. She suggests being actively involved in your community and making education a priority in your home.

“For example when my kids were younger, I would have my boys round up the kids on our block and I would read to them,” Joyce says. “Churches could open the doors for tutoring on Saturdays, even just once a month.” Joyce and her husband have graduated all four of their children through home schooling and have designed a successful organization for promoting home schooling. Along with her contributions to education across the country, she has moved into the realm of politics, focusing on solving issues for the city of Baker.

“My goal as mayor is to increase morale in the community as we work together,” Joyce says. She has served as councilwoman nearly four years in the Baker community and now campaigns to represent the city as Mayor. She explains how her decision to serve the community was revealed through a conversation with God.

Burges 14 6659“After my youngest graduated from home-school God spoke to my heart, ‘Your work is not done yet,’ he said, ‘I want you to get involved more with your community.’” Joyce did just that; she received counsel from close friends and family, entered an election for council, and won. Just as her decision to home-school had been prompted by a dark situation, Joyce responded to the community’s needs and works to be a part of the progress.

In the words of Marianne Williamson, “It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us, and that we were born to make manifest the glory of God. So as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give others the permission to do the same.” Joyce and Eric’s contributions prove to be a light for their community and also the generations to follow.

“Create what you want to be,” Joyce says. “I am at my absolute best when I am creating. First in your mind, then make it a reality. When you are in a dark place, get around positive people, think on things that are lovely and are of a good report. Renew your mind by praying and reading God’s word and take it step by step.” We have the power to be a light in a dark world just as our savior. Jesus is light, but He has also shared His light that we might be inspired to become a light in our dark world.

“Let your light shine so that men may glorify your father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

December 2015, Faith Life

Murelle Harrison: Fostering Change and Uniting Communities at Home and Abroad

by Susan Brown

IMG_5222“I have no idea why God made me the way I am. I am always for the masses. I want everybody.” Where others see obstacles, Murelle Harrison sees opportunities. From south Baton Rouge to South Africa, she is connecting people with resources, inspiring hope, motivating change. A school in Dikgale, South Africa now has hot lunches and textbooks. Children and teens in the Gardere community thrive in summer camp. And everywhere, they’re getting a taste of love in action.

Harrison makes it clear: the work depends on the involvement of many, many volunteers with diverse gifts and experience. Cooperation, she says, is key.

“To make a difference you have to have community involvement, and so I started learning about coalitions and pooling resources and being strategic,” she explains. She delights in discovering a person’s passion and putting it to work, shoving cultural and religious differences aside. And she sets the example, using her own experience as a psychologist and prevention specialist.

IMG_1937Most often that means balancing her career as associate dean for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Southern University and investing in families through the Gardere Initiative. But her academic connections have also opened opportunities for ministry abroad.

A research project to investigate substance abuse among rural African American families in Louisiana turned into an international outreach after the National Institute on Drug Abuse decided to fund supplements in a sub-Saharan country. Harrison connected with Dr. Dorothy Malaka, from the University of the North, a similar historically Black university in recently post-apartheid South Africa. A few years later, her sister Joyce Green joined her on site.

“She said let’s do a mission project, and we got started,” Harrison said. They focused on Kokona Dikgale Primary School, located in the northern province of Limpopo. Faith Chapel on Staring Lane, where Harrison is a longtime member, took on the project, a daunting task since the school had no electricity, no textbooks for children and no cooking facilities for lunchtime. The church, under the leadership of Pastor Bartholomew Riggins, continues to contribute more than $4,000 annually.

IMG_1603“We chose this little school because it only had 116 students,” Harrison says. “It was small enough that you could do something for everyone at the school.” Her brother, Mark Guidry, offers science projects: a vinegar volcano, balloons to measure the weight of air. Parents wait for hours to see their children display their projects.

After a ten-year mission commitment, Kokona Dikgale Primary School looks very different. The church has raised money for a complete set of textbooks, along with computers and printers. Now there is a teacher’s aide for the 40-student K-3 classroom, and they’ve added kitchen facilities.

“Now for their hot lunch program we’re excited because they have a wood burning stove,” Harrison explains. “These are things that people can help with – we give them meat for the three days that we’re there.” For the upcoming mission trip in February, they are also collecting school supplies.

IMG_1401Harrison draws a parallel between the families in this South African community and those in the south Baton Rouge Gardere area. They need resources and help to obtain them.

“Both of these are impoverished areas,” she says. “In this country, there are resources and the people in this area hadn’t connected with them. We just established a site so that there would be a point of contact. In South Africa, you don’t have resources.” The work is challenging, but she is guided by Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

“I think the people who really believe, I think they just continue working,” Harrison says. “’And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.’” [Gal. 6:9]

“It’s only Jesus Christ who’s going to really bring forth the transformation that’s needed,” Harrison says. “And that’s why I want people who work here to see Jesus Christ in the lives of people who come to help – the love and the compassion.”

IMG_1252Support for the Gardere community accelerated in 2005 with the formation of the Gardere Initiative, a response to rapid change in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A member of Faith Chapel and local attorney, Rica Kwentua teamed up with Pastor W.M. Pitcher of Greater Sixty-Aid Baptist Church. Harrison was quick to say yes to the idea of a concerted effort and took a lead role as the Initiative’s treasurer/secretary, a title that belies her hands-on leadership.

The Initiative now holds small gatherings of families and teens to bridge the gap between community members, plus two annual large-scale events. The back-to-school drive provides supplies to area children. The Christmas Love Fest raises money for gifts. The celebration rotates among Greater Sixty-Aid, the Church of Ephesus and Greater Morning Star Baptist Church.

“The Gardere Initiative has been the best example of how the church was meant to operate,” Harrison says. “We have people from all walks of life, different beliefs, but everyone believes in Jesus and that’s really important because people who believe in Jesus Christ operate differently.”

IMG_1499The result? Academic summer camps, bag lunches for kids during summers and holidays, domestic violence classes for teens, a mother’s mentoring breakfast, a community garden – programs continue to multiply as leadership fosters an environment for creative solutions.

After three attempts, the Gardere Youth Alliance just received $600,000 for five years to address issues related to alcohol and marijuana in the area. And that’s not all.

“Our real big accomplishment this year was funding for the sidewalks that will start in 2016,” Harrison says. “Having the sidewalks and a crosswalk at GSRI/Innovation Way will sort of be a bridge between the two communities and make it a lot safer for our children.”

“It’s always like, ‘let’s do.’ But it’s never to give up or to complain,” Harrison says. “I’m always so grateful because there are so many good people who come and volunteer here. Let’s not get tired. This is a journey.”

December 2015, Faith Life

Michael Phillips: The All In Movement

by Beth Townsend

MDP“You’re not all in and I want you all in. There are also millions of people in America that believe in me, but they’re not all in either. I want you to do something about it!” Successful entrepreneur Michael Phillips heard these words from the Lord during his prayer time.

All In. Those two words began a movement that would turn into a ministry of national significance. Because those words were rooted in Revelation 3, Phillips knew God had called him to be a difference maker. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Living in intentional darkness is predictable. Yet, living an indifferent life of faith as a believer can be a subtle darkness that slowly sucks the joy and meaning out of being a confident child of God.

Deep down Michael knew his lukewarm faith did not please God. “That day, I woke up before everybody with this fire … knowing God had spoken. I had been visited.”

Phillips grew up in a middle-class Louisiana family who shared a love for hunting, fishing, and sports. He attended the University of Louisiana Lafayette for his first two years of college. Thinking back he laughed aloud, “My parents bought me a computer when I was 13. The first day, I took it apart. My parents just about lost their minds! But I put it back together and everything worked.” This was the start of his love for technology, and after studying computer science, he got a job in Baton Rouge that brought him back to LSU.

“When I graduated I didn’t want to work for anyone, so I started a small consulting company,” Phillips explained. “Within months I merged with another one. That is what became Sparkhound. We grew to 230 employees and I was there 13 years, running the company the latter six; I thought I would do that forever,” he smiled.

Michael had married Cheri and they started a family. Although they went to church, it was more a part of the schedule than an act of worship. “Then God moved us to get back into church,” he continued. “I was so caught up in running a company. We had two kids at the time, three now, [and] Cheri and I were struggling with all the busyness. Then on June 29, 2012, God just stoked my fire and woke me up.”

He recalled several months prior to the call when a bold act of obedience took them all by surprise. While out with his sons for donuts, Michael noticed a young man standing over a broken down truck and he offered help. “I thought maybe he needed a jump,” Phillips said. The man who had been there a while responded saying, ‘My engine block is overheated. If I get a bag of ice and pour cold water on the engine I’ll be able to crank it.’

For some reason, Michael just couldn’t let it go. “God began to talk to me and said, ‘give him your truck.’ It was those words over and over. Give him your truck, give him your truck.”

lsu100Phillips was stunned; wrestling with God he prayed back and forth. He felt God was clear. Uncomfortable yet resolute, he was to be obedient. “Then the words came out of my mouth, ‘Man, do you see that truck? It’s yours. I don’t know why, but God has a plan. You are supposed to have it, no strings attached.”
The man stood in shock. “He got emotional, kind of broke down and then I broke down,” Phillips explained. There was little contact between the two after that. They handled the business aspect of it, but Phillips felt he had done what God asked.

Giving a truck to a stranger was a bold move, even for a man who’d been a Christian as long as he could remember. “I didn’t understand what being a Christian was until later in life. We were casual Catholics; my parents taught me right from wrong.” One day while hunting, he had a defining moment where he overwhelmingly realized the presence of God. He spoke out loud, ‘Thank you God.’ That was like a door opening that had he felt had been shut for years. Perhaps that moment was the seed that was fertilized as he was called into a life of surrender. After giving away the truck, he was on fire, knowing God had called him into ministry.

“All I knew is that God wanted me to be all in, and he wanted me to get other people to be all in. I had people come into my life like Corey Webster, Glenn Davis, and Buddy Roemer. I felt God was leading me to sell the business and go into ministry,” Michael emphasized. “We were making a lot of money and had three kids. It’s a scary thing when your wife asks ‘how is this going to provide for us?’ and you don’t have an answer.”

Cheri and Michael sought counsel from close friends and their pastor, and they eventually agreed that this was what God had called Michael to do. They started the All In Ministry Movement in October of 2012.

family pic“My wife and I sold our stock and put the money into the ministry,” he chuckled. “My brilliant thought was that we would have enough time between January 2013 and January 2014 to have revenue coming in. Even though I’d set money aside, we needed 30% more right off the bat.”

Things soon got busy – Phillips and his volunteers spoke at youth conferences, reached out to churches, wrote sermons and small group studies, and challenged others to move beyond lukewarm faith and be all in, yet there were many roadblocks. “I would sit in front of a Methodist pastor one day and a Baptist the next. Some meetings went terribly, some great, but then nothing would come after 99.9 percent of them,” Michael recalled. Changing courses, the All In Movement stopped approaching churches and started going directly to people.

It was in another dream that God spoke clarity, In this dream my wife and I are parked at a gas pump and I saw a red ice cream truck with a child shackled in the back. I jumped out and tried to save him. In a fetal position, he’s pinned against the wall. I couldn’t free him! It dawned on me that he is despondent, not struggling to be free. The truck begins to roll, I panic and jump out,” Michael explained. Weeks later, God revealed the meaning, “It was powerful. God showed me that the ice cream truck is The All In Movement. The child in the back is the American Christian. Most aren’t even struggling to be set free because they don’t even know they are captive. That is why the child was just despondent. Each person has to choose.”

That message is imperative, “We can no longer be lukewarm if we are going to stand for God and be the light of the world.” Still Michael needed help to do what lay before him. That’s when he met Fox News host, and former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee. Michael had an idea, and when they met, Phillips got straight to the point.

“I went to him with my 30-second pitch. Something like, ‘We want to do a national day of service to show Christians what being a Christian is all about. Would you bring us on your show?’ The governor responded and said, ‘I will begin to work on that.’”

Three months later Governor Huckabee signed on as the event chair for “Do Good Friday,” and that became the All In Movement catalyst. Phillips was energized, “This was going be the thing that millions of people were going to do together; historic displays of authentic Christian behavior.”

That event was on Good Friday 2013 and though thousands participated, it was less than the millions the movement had hoped for. “We had some great things happen. But I’d built it into to something much larger in my mind,” Michael recalled. “At that point we were out of money, it had taken everything we had. I began doing consulting jobs to make ends meet.”
“I went through a time of frustration. My prayers were gut felt. ‘God, why are you giving me things that I can’t do?’” It was an uncomfortable season, as Cheri grew concerned with provision. “There were nights [spent] on my knees, crying.” In April things finally began to change and the technology began to evolve. “God refined our mobile app. There are 200 million people who identify themselves as Christian, yet we don’t see 200 million difference makers in the world everyday.”

DSC_3008Michael continued, “Ephesians 4:11-13 says, ‘The body of Christ matures as each one serves His purpose.’ We believe we reach people by using something they use every day, their phones. This is how we reach millions. They will no longer be the despondent kid in the truck.” Phillips explained, “In our app we have projects from ministries all over the world; You care about children? Want to go on mission trips? To be trained as missionaries? To stop human trafficking? Use our app. The app makes it easy to make a difference! It also offers ministries an opportunity to become interactive globally. We’ve built an infrastructure and have 2100 people using it now.”

Michael’s faith in this mission is magnetic, “I’ve prayed about the funding: ‘God, you told me that you were giving me an ice cream truck. You didn’t say build an ice cream truck. I’m going to trust you.’” Others have realized this innovative opportunity and connections have grown into relationships leading to partnerships with The Jesus Alliance and Global Media Outreach, one of the largest evangelism efforts in the world.

Phillips’s message is consistent, “We’ve lost the object of our pursuit. We’ve made the American dream our pursuit instead of pursuing God. We’re leaving this world in worse shape for our children, and politics isn’t the answer. Our battle is spiritual. We need revival. We need the church to wake up and to roar!”

App IconHelping the All In Movement is as simple as downloading the app (available on all major platforms), it takes less than a minute. You can look at featured projects and join the “Impact Team” by becoming a donor or volunteer. The more people involved, the greater the impact. To learn more about the All In Movement, visit

“We need people to give,” Phillips emphasized passionately. “The All In Movement doesn’t receive support from large donors or organizations. Give a one-time gift, or give $7, $10, or even $100 dollars per month. Donate online. It’s easy.”

Things seem to be finally heading in a positive direction for the Phillips family and the All In Movement. Though they have momentum, they continually solicit involvement. “It’s been two years since I gave that truck away. The journey has been long, over three years. Yet, I am a different person than I was even six months ago. God has brought us through this. Most days now I live with a freedom that I wish that everyone could feel. Finally, a freedom from having to fear; I truly have a peace that you can only learn through the struggle.”

God is inspiring hearts across America to stand in the gap for Him—to respond to what is happening in the world, yet many Christians simply don’t know how to help, or where to start. Michael Phillips and the All In Movement and its wonderful app can help change that! Will you be a part of the response? Are you All In?

December 2015, Faith Life

Q&A with Sammy Tippit: Taking Jesus’ Light to the Dark Corners of the World

by Carol Thomas
  1. 1 pakistan sammy pastorsHow did you get started going to dark areas of the world? It began in Baton Rouge in 1965. I had just given my life to Christ and met with three friends from Istrouma High for prayer. After praying one morning, Fred Koch said, “I believe the Lord wants us to go across the river and preach the gospel.” I was skeptical because that’s where the nightclubs were located. But, we went and found lonely, hurting people who responded. In that moment, God placed a hunger in my heart to minister in places where no one else went.
  2. Describe the areas. What happens when light enters a dark world? It changes everything. Romania was very dark under communist rule –– no creativity. There was a lack of electricity and very dark at night in cities. Most buildings were gray. There was only one kind of car and one color. There were only government television and radio stations. Christians were sent to prison and lost their jobs. Not long after God sent a revival to many of the churches, a revolution erupted. People on the streets shouted, “There is a God! There is a God!” and freedom came to the nation. Twenty-five years later, everything has changed. The nation is filled with color and creativity. They have some of the finest IT personnel in all of Europe. We’ve just entered a partnership to provide Christian television programming, create an App for Romanian believers, and help them reach the massive wave of refugees flooding Europe. When the Creator enters a nation, people become like Him, very creative.
  3. What is the greatest miracle that you’ve seen God do through your ministry? There have been so many, but watching God hold back rain has been the most consistent. I preached in Odessa, Ukraine a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. We had been granted a stadium by the city council. However, the day before the meeting, they revoked the permit. After losing it, we prayed, and a high-ranking military official came to us saying that he controlled the military stadium and would provide it. He also said that he would put his soldiers on the streets redirecting people. However, when we left to go to the stadium, there was a torrential downpour. We drove by the city stadium, and it was flooded. When we arrived at the military stadium, there was no rain. I preached, and several thousand people responded to give their hearts to Christ. As soon as I closed in prayer, the rain poured in the military stadium.
  4. Describe the response of those who have never heard the gospel. I preached in a Siberian city in the Arctic Circle. It was a place where people were sent to slave labor camps. There were no churches. Christian young people from Moldova and Ukraine travelled with me and passed out invitations for this historic gathering. It was the largest attendance for any kind of event in that stadium. Almost everyone responded to believe and follow Christ. Today, there are several churches, which were started from that gathering.
  5. Have you had a recent time in which you felt your life was in danger? I preached a large evangelistic meeting in Pakistan a couple of years ago. It was a week after the largest mass murder of Christians in the country. Terrorists were targeting Christians and Americans. I preached in the center of Karachi. After the first night, newspapers reported that suicide bombers had attempted to blow up an unknown target in Karachi. However, the bomb exploded while they were on their way to their target. The terrorists were killed. Needless to say, I spent much time in prayer while there.
  6. 1 kayseri group copyWhere do you feel the greatest move of God is in the Islamic world and why do you feel that way? It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced. The persecution of Christians is extremely severe. Yet, people are coming to Christ at an amazing rate. House churches are popping up all over the country and throughout the diaspora. I recently trained Iranian house church leaders in a country I can’t mention. But churches are multiplying. I’ve met drug addicts and prostitutes whose lives have been transformed by Christ. I don’t know how it happened, but a few years ago one of the most prestigious universities in Iran carried my testimony on their home page. It even provided an invitation for people to come to Christ. I’ve learned one thing about dark places. The stronger the persecution, the greater the display of God’s glory! His light shatters the darkness!

Sammy Tippit is president and founder of Sammy Tippit Ministries. The ministry is governed by a Board of Directors, consisting of Christian leaders throughout the U.S. and has been in existence since 1970. The ministry focuses on the dark and dangerous places in the world. The websites are:;

Running Home cover



Running Home: Sammy Tippit is author of 17 books, with his most recent being Running Home. It is a Baton Rouge story about a man who rescues a teenager from human traffickers and returns to Baton Rouge to discover a family he never knew. It’s filled with intrigue, inspiration, and ultimately a spiritual revival. It can be purchased at or



1455966_792068234152110_1467205302_nAbout Carol: Carol Thomas with Kingdom Publishers has been publishing the LSU Tiger Bucks coupon book for almost 20 years and has recently turned it over to her entrepreneurial daughter, Jennifer Gilbert. Carol is currently publishing the new restaurant coupon and fundraising book for the schools, “City Bucks” and will be expanding in other markets next year with her fundraising business. She has recently been elected President of the EBRP Republican Women for 2016, serves on the board of the Chamber of Commerce of EBRP, and leads a Bible study for “Women In Business” on kingdom principles for success (A Bethany life B group) It is held the first Monday night of every month at La Madeline’s –Perkins Rowe, from 5:30 to 7 PM.

December 2015, Family Life

Christian Footsteps

by Tonya Woodridge-Jarvis

“I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness.” – John 12:46

Growing up, my grandmother would always say to me, “Baby, don’t roll stone, for stone,” and as a child you just tend to listen, do what you’re told and not ask any questions. It was later in my adult years that I really understood what she was saying to me. I’ve been placed in situations where I clearly wanted to lose my hat, but I heard a familiar voice saying, “Baby, don’t roll stone for stone.”

Have you ever been in situations where you were being persecuted? It may have been in a meeting at work, a disagreement with friends, or an argument with a spouse, and you have tried to keep God first but the other party seems to be full of the devil. As a Christian, your character will always be judged by the behavior you display. This means that when someone cuts you off in traffic, you should still say, “God bless you,” without any additional sign language. If the school calls because your kids are acting a fool, pray over them first, and if you and your spouse are in a disagreement, get the holy oil and anoint their forehead.

The saying means that, no matter what it looks or feels like, you must take the high road and allow God to work a miracle over the situation with people, places and things. It is our Christian mission to lead the way for someone else. You never know whom you are leading with your actions. So as you’re reading this today, be mindful of your Christian footsteps because people are watching and following. We are all shining lights; just make sure that your light is illuminating the love of Jesus Christ.

December 2015, Family Life

The Light of Christ in Us

by Anne Hays

anne-headshotJohn 1:4-5; 8-9: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not comprehend it….He (John the Baptist) was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light which coming into the world, enlightens every man.” Jesus is the Light of the World. He is the source of illumination and truth.

This Christmas Season we celebrate Jesus as Light of the World as discussed in John 1. Jesus is the originator of life. First, there is the idea that Christ is the one who gives life, both eternal life and abundant life right now, after we have received Christ as Savior. In this instance life and light are closely bound. The light of Christ illuminates everyone. As Dr. Tom Constable, whom my husband had as a Bible Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary years ago, remarks in his online Bible commentary: “Everyone lives under the spotlight of God’s illuminating revelation in Jesus Christ since the incarnation (cf. 1 John 1). His light clarifies the sinfulness and spiritual need of human beings. Those who respond to this convicting revelation positively experience salvation. Those who reject it and turn from the light will end up in outer darkness.”

Christ – “He is the source of illumination and truth.” (John 1:1)

At the age of 12 years old, through involvement in the Baptist church my family attended in Birmingham, Ala., I responded to the illumination about my need for Christ as Savior. The Light of Christ was presented to me, and in that light, I saw my darkness found in my sin. I invited Christ into my life at that time through a simple prayer. Forty-two years later, I now can respond ‘positively’ or ‘negatively’ to the illumination I receive daily. So, there is a one-time responding I’ve done with Christ when I was a child, confronted with my need for a Savior, and a moment-by-movement responding. I became a Christian once at age 12. Now daily, I receive divine illumination. I’m confronted with a choice to walk in the light or to stay in the darkness. This choice does not threaten my status in God’s family; I will not be un-adopted. However, I will suffer the relationship disconnect my choice involves, should I choose to stay in the darkness.

What does this moment-by-moment illumination look like? Last night as I contemplated an interaction with a friend, I felt hurt and anger at a lack of responsiveness from her. I pondered a passive-aggressive response; this anticipated response felt good, vindicating. Then the thought occurred to me ‘That’s not how you were designed.’ My owners-manual, found in the Bible, tells me that bitterness and resentment are to be cast aside. I take that instruction to mean that my nervous system and relationship system will work best, if I cast aside the temptation to carry my resentment. I began to pray that Christ would open the door and I would recognize it, if I should tell my sister about my pain. This prayer made me a little anxious as it involved what I considered conflict which I do not like. But I trusted that the light within me would continue to guide me. 

Even though Light shines, darkness can miss it – “And the light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:5b)

This statement is astounding and alarming. The verse above contains the idea that the light came and was evident, but that there was refusal to accept it and an unwillingness to see what was plainly displayed. John 9 confirms this idea and specifies the blindness of the religious folks. John 9 is the amazing story of Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth. There is a Biblical sight that means spiritual sight. In this passage, Jesus heals the blind man. The blind man was able to see and by faith trust Christ. This is opposed to the Pharisees in this chapter who were the religious leaders and guardians of spiritual light. Yet they could not ‘see’ Jesus even though they had physical vision. The juxtaposition then was the man who was physically blind, but had spiritual sight to see and trust Christ. This was opposed by the religious leaders who had physical sight, but did not possess spiritual sight for the things of Christ.

How can I go spiritually blind?

I think spiritual blindness comes along gradually, like a slow boil. You don’t notice how you are affected until the effect is so great that’s it’s obvious to those around you. I’m struck, in my own relationships, at how clearly others can see me, but I can’t see as well. I think it’s simple – my eyes point out of my heard away from me! As a Christian professional counselor, I see that usually the bigger, consequential sins occur over time. Adultery typically starts out as a friendly relationship, with little sexual intention. The relationship crosses a line when personal information about one another’s spouse is shared with the other ‘friend.’

How can we avoid the slow boil and retain our sight?

Three items come to mind as follows: Picture a circle with concentric circles radiating outward. First is #1 below, the other circles flow from the central core.

1 – Spend personal, consistent time with the Lord involving study and mediation in His Word and prayer. Any relationship will wither when it is neglected. It’s my responsibility to tend my heart, to be disciplined, to have a personal time with the Lord. Some days I feel a strong connection, other days it feels distant. It is easy for me to pull back when I feel the distance, but I endeavor to be consistent.

2 – Have close-in, personal relationships with believers who are as mature or more mature in their Christian walk than you. You should have a handful of close friends/family/spouse that you can safely share your struggles with. Not everyone needs to know your stuff but a few absolutely do. For me, I share very personally with my husband. And frequently, he is letting me know by my behavior or attitude, what’s not working for him and vice versa. Marriage is constant contact. There is simply no other relationship like marriage on earth. I just cannot fake it with my husband for very long. I can only look good for so long with him. What a relief! I can fool a lot of you most of the time, but not him! He lives with me. If it’s not with your spouse then find someone else. I have a very close, female friend whom I confide in too.

3 – Be significantly involved with a local church. Every church has its struggles; you don’t get off that easily! It is up to you to find a church where you can experience the fellowship of other believers. Together, you are to do some degree of life together. I am astounded by believers who expect me to believe that they are exempt from significant involvement in a local body of believers. There is no reason anyone can give me in which I’d say “Yeah, don’t worry about the church thing.” This one item will practically guarantee some kind of descent into spiritual blindness. We simply were not designed to do life apart from a community. And it doesn’t count to consider your best friend as ‘your church.’

We are Light Bearers. We contain the Light.

2 Corinthians 4:7-10 says, “But we have this treasure (Christ, who has shone in our hearts) in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body.”

God’s design is that He shines through us as He increases and we decrease. This is the normal Christian life. We then become living advertisements for Christ. If anyone is thirsty and seeking, they can be drawn to Christ in you. The opposite can also happen; those who see Christ in you may be offended. The world will never ‘like’ Jesus, nor will they like us. It is one thing to be different in every good way and be rejected. It is another thing to be different from the world in weird and self-righteous ways and wonder why there is rejection. In my life, I have personally discovered that struggling and having problems has created a thirst in others to know more about the spiritual part of my life. Perhaps this was an example of being different in good ways.

My husband and I have served with two para-church organizations tasked with evangelism: Campus Crusade for Christ or “Cru” and Young Life. We know what it is to evangelize and to be evangelical. Oddly enough, the most evangelical we ever were, was when we were at our lowest point.

When I had young kids, I mistakenly assumed that having it together would proclaim Christ very effectively. When my kids brought their friends home and we got to know the parents of their friends, I thought we’d next need to invite them over to a well-decorated house and well- apportioned meal. I thought I had to have the house perfect, as if any of us ever lived like this.

When our middle child was in high school she got pregnant. It was like a bomb going off in our family. The shock waves emanated outward from us. I experienced intense emotional pain for a number of reasons. It’s not real cool when your husband is an elder in your local evangelical church and you’re in graduate school to become a Christian counselor, when your daughter becomes pregnant. Or so I thought.

It laid us bare. I was paralyzed. My friends closest to me knew that in extreme pain, I isolated myself. They came and pulled me back out into civilization. It hurt unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I felt a lot of shame and guilt. I remember avoiding a local grocery store with my now visibly- pregnant daughter. I could tell by the cars in the parking lot that a woman I knew from our neighborhood was also shopping there. I just did not have it in me on that day to see and talk to her.

On our first Sunday in church, I needed to have our friends all around us. Some of our close friends showed up, sitting behind us which felt protective. I felt safe, like I could ‘do this.’ I felt supported and cared for. If we had not shared our struggles then we would have lost that blessing of support and companionship. And that’s what we tend to do in our churches … keep our problems secret because it’s just too painful and shameful.

In this process of honestly and authentically walking this out, we inadvertently became evangelistic. Those who had minimal spiritual interest or none were suddenly asking us about our story. They wanted to know what happened. Our lid had been peeled off and you could see the real insides. We had problems, big problems like everyone one else on the planet. We just couldn’t make it look good on the outside anymore. Then we got to tell the truth of the matter that we could walk this out and talk about it because of knowing Christ. Through the brokenness, Christ became more real to my husband and me. When we hurt the worst, we could turn to Him; we could turn to our faith community and receive soothing. We weren’t a light because we had it all together; we were a light because the light shined through the cracks in our lives.

So I leave you this Christmas Season with various points to ponder as it relates to light. First, we start with Christ as the Light, the source that illuminates everything in our world, both the light in us and the darkness. Then we moved to the idea that even though Light is present and illuminating, darkness can ignore it. In fact, those of us most spiritual need to take heed lest we lose our spiritual sight. And finally, I end with the idea that light is meant to display through us the life of Christ so that those without the light will be drawn to Christ. It is often in our weakness and low points that we display Him the most profoundly to a lost and dying world in desperate need of Him.

December 2015, Learning For Life

Istrouma Sports Outreach: “Doing Sports in a Different Way”

by Mark Hunter
ML Woodruff, Sports Outreach Minister at Istrouma Baptist Church, next to a sign at one of the church's ball fields. photo by mark h hunter
ML Woodruff, Sports Outreach Minister at Istrouma Baptist Church, next to a sign at one of the church’s ball fields. photo by mark h hunter

On just about any given Saturday, the spacious ball fields at Istrouma Baptist Church are crowded with hundreds of boys and girls playing flag football, T-ball, softball, baseball, or soccer, or they’re indoors playing basketball or participating in “extreme sports” training in the church’s newly renovated gym.

They also hear a gospel message and earn extra points for their team by memorizing a weekly Bible verse.

Hundreds of parents and grandparents cheer the kids on during the games and then attentively listen to volunteer chaplains who present the Gospel of Jesus Christ at each game’s half time.

“About 90 percent of these kids don’t go to Istrouma and about one-third don’t attend church that we know of,” said M.L. Woodruff, Istrouma’s sports minister during a late October Saturday morning football session.

More than 1,200 children and adults were on the church’s campus, located off Airline Highway just south of I-12. The kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14, played on 30 flag-football teams with pro-football team names like the Ravens, Packers, Colts and Titans.

ISO for BRCL Dolphin running back mhhThe six acres of groomed grass was chalk-lined into smaller fields with names like the Georgia Dome, Heinz Field, and the Superdome. During the morning, nearly 300 boys and girls played more than a dozen games supported by 250 volunteers, including 70 volunteer coaches.

The cheers of supportive adults rolled across the campus as the kids, all wearing bright orange, tear-away “flags” on belts below their team jerseys, chased each other up and down the fields. The blasts of referee’s whistles punctuated what one coach described with a laugh as “organized chaos.”

“A lot of kids like sports, [and] they like to play sports; their faces light up when they get the opportunity to play sports, and our sports are all about the kids,” said Woodruff, who in a previous career was the legendary baseball coach at Parkview Baptist School. “When they get a chance to get out and run around they forget about themselves – they become selfless – so we use the sports to talk about how the Light of the World – Jesus Christ – comes inside us and transforms our lives.”

ISO for BR CL good game kids mhh


And for the hundreds of adults, “This is a bridge to give people who don’t normally come to church an opportunity to come and check it out,” Woodruff said. “We’re attractional – where we have people come to our campus – but our goal is to be missional where we go out into the community and start gospel centers of sports ministry to transform the communities for Christ.”


Each year, ISO sponsors what is called the “Baton Rouge Sports Initiative,” where the Istrouma church coordinates a community-wide, one day sports event partnering with many other local churches, EBR schools, the BRAVE anti-crime initiative, and the BREC sports programs at BREC parks around the metro area, especially in north Baton Rouge.

On April 12, 2016, an estimated 1,000 kids will attend sports clinics for baseball, football, basketball, soccer, “and whatever else we can dream up,” Woodruff said. Dozens of high school and college student athletes will volunteer to coach the kids in the various sports, and everyone gets a nutritious lunch prepared by local church volunteers.

At each clinic site, sports equipment like baseballs, bats, and gloves will be given to the students/participants. All of the equipment is donated. Donations can be dropped off at the church office, a former bank located at the western edge of the Istrouma campus along the Airline Highway frontage road, until the end of March.

“We’d like to have new equipment – we’ll take used equipment, but we don’t want folks to clean out their garage and bring us baseball gloves that are 20 years old,” Woodruff said. “We want to give the kids good stuff they can use.”


ISO for BRCL Bankston family mhhCarson Bankston is an assistant coach for the Colts, a team for the 3rd grade age group, and his family attends Graceworks Church in Prairieville. He said he appreciates the program because the whole family is involved as his wife, Laura, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ella Jane, watch and cheer for their 8-year-old son Parker James.

“They’re having a great year,” Bankston said about the team. “I think its really good for the dads and kids to have time to be together, have some good times together, and also have some conflict and try to work through it.”

Bankston encourages Christian Life readers to find out more about the program and get involved because, “they have a lot of fun, they get to play and they get to build some skills.”

ISO for BRCL Larry Singleton n son mhhLarry Singleton is head coach of the Titans, a team for the 1st grade age group, and attends Healing Place Church.

“It’s all about the kids,” Singleton said as his son, Tahj, 6, stood nearby. After each game the coaches present their players with award cards for various teamwork skills then huddle with them for a prayer.

Tahj clutched a colorful award card for “best listener.” When asked about the just-finished game he answered, “it’s so fun!” with a big grin.

Singleton said they live nearby and are planning on coaching and playing basketball later this year.

“It’s all about the kids,” Singleton said again. “We want to make sure they are prepared for life both spiritually and to be able to play together.”

Jason Whitehead is the Titans assistant coach. His family attends Cross Point Baptist, and his three sons Jacob, Caleb, and Noah were also playing.

“The game provides us an opportunity to see what life is like – they learn about emotions and thoughts and feelings that are going to come out in life and deal with them in a Christ-like way,” Whitehead said. “Istrouma Sports’ theme is to do sports a different way – at the end of the game – you still have a desire to win but its not us against them – we are striving together.”


“Istrouma’s sports ministry provides the entire community with a wholesome atmosphere for children to develop,” said Istrouma’s Lead Pastor Jeff Ginn. “Not only are the kids learning fundamentals about sports, more importantly, they’re learning fundamentals about life. Biblical principles are instilled through weekly memory verses and devotionals.

“Even the parents and grandparents are influenced by what happens on our fields,” Ginn said. “We’re helping to change the world one child at a time.”

For more information visit Istrouma’s web site:

December 2015, Geaux Life

Carlton and Sharon Jones … Instruments of God’s Love

by Lisa Tramontana

DSCN5374This is a story about music — how it shaped the life of Carlton Jones and by extension, the life of his wife Sharon, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

From the age of 10 when someone put a guitar in Carlton’s hands for the very first time, music found a special place in his heart, especially for the praise and glory of God. Today, more than 50 years later, he is putting guitars into the hands of Christian musicians in Moldova, Vietnam, Honduras, Romania, China, and dozens of other countries.

The idea came to him 30 years ago when a group of Mexican children visited Carlton and Sharon’s church, Community Bible Church in Baton Rouge. “They sang for our congregation,” Carlton said, “and the boy who was playing the guitar was extremely talented, but his guitar was in terrible shape. It broke my heart. I could only imagine what a difference it would make if he had an instrument that was worthy of his talent.”

At the time, Carlton was well known for his musical ability and had his own guitar collection. He and Sharon gave away one of their guitars to the talented young boy from Mexico, and a ministry was born.

Soon, Carlton and Sharon founded Guitar Dreamers, and later, Guitar Ministries with the goal of donating high quality guitars to needy churches, missions, prisons and orphanages throughout the world. A company based in Nashville (Music Instruments Reclamation Corp.) became one of their most valuable partners, providing them with newly manufactured guitars that had small blemishes or flaws that reduced their price from $1,000 each to about $300. The Joneses started buying as many as they could afford. They also repaired donated guitars and auctioned off others.


In total, Guitar Ministries has donated about 1,000 guitars, said Sharon. “It’s not just a blessing to the churches and the worship leaders who receive our guitars, but it’s been a blessing to us … just knowing how much happiness we are bringing to others,” she said.

During his travels, Carlton has seen musicians playing guitars that were literally falling to pieces, split apart and duct-taped together, instruments with strings that hadn’t been changed in years. “And some of those guitars were shared between two churches,” he said.

Over the years, Carlton and Sharon have made several overseas visits to personally deliver their guitars. They often visited churches to conduct guitar repair workshops or to lead music conferences, bringing several brand new guitars with them. When it was time to go, they would leave the new guitars behind with the church members, a surprise gift that always brought tears, smiles, laughter and hugs to everyone involved.

Churches that want to receive a guitar must fill out a special form online stating their situation and demonstrating their need. Carlton and Sharon carefully consider each request, confirming with the appropriate agencies that the need is real. Experience has proven that it’s risky to just send a guitar directly to a church in another country, so most are sent personally with friends, relatives or representatives of either Guitar Ministries or the church receiving the guitar. Every gift also includes a case, strings, capos, cables, picks and straps.

guitar.puertoricoGuitar Ministries has attracted the support of other musicians as well. The Joneses have an extensive network of musician friends, including world-renowned guitarists like Tommy Emmanuel, Phil Keagy and Doyle Dykes, all of whom have performed fundraising concerts for the ministry. When Emmanuel first learned about their work, he sent a note to Carlton, saying, “You are changing the world — one guitar at a time.”

Sitting in his home studio, Carlton picks up a guitar and plays a few chords. The walls are covered with photos of famous and talented guitarists he has known, each picture with a story of its own. But in between anecdotes about Chet Atkins or Earl Klugh, he comes across simple photos that impress him on a deeper level.

He points to a picture of children singing in Haiti. In another is a choir performing in Mexico. And always … someone playing a guitar, guiding the music, spreading the Gospel … and yes … changing the world.

For more information about Guitar Ministries, contact Carlton or Sharon Jones. You can visit their website at, or call (225) 936-0349. The couple also has written original contemporary Christian songs together.

December 2015, Pastor's Perspective

Christmas and the Light of Christ

by R. Lee McKinzie

7ImageWaiting. All year long we have been waiting. And now we are reminded that we have to wait just a little bit longer. Will Christmas ever be here? The liturgical season is Advent, and it is that special time the church sets aside each year to prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ child. The season of Advent proclaims that the Lord is coming, and that he will bring the light of God to the world. Let me ask you: Does your life resemble the light of Christ? Does the way you live show others that the darkness of the world is no longer “in charge,” that the light of Christ shines brightly to show the way? Many religious traditions begin their celebration of the Advent season with the lighting of the Advent Wreath. The Advent Wreath is a simple circle of evergreen branches. The circle is perhaps one of the oldest Judeo-Christian symbols, and it represents that in God there is no beginning and no ending. It is symbolic that the lives we live may be altered by our deaths, but that our lives in Christ will not end. Simply, the light of Christ shines through us. Another of the most striking and the most universal features of Christmas is the use of evergreens in churches and homes. Among ancient Romans evergreens were an emblem of peace, joy, and victory. The early Christians placed these in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home. Holly and ivy, along with pine, and fir are called evergreens because they never change color. They are ever – green, ever – alive, even in the midst of winter. They symbolize the unchanging nature of our God, and they remind us of the everlasting life that is ours through Christ Jesus. Under Christian thought and sentiment, holly became widely used in church celebrations. Holly was considered as the burning bush, and as a symbol of Mary whose being glows with the Holy Spirit. The red berries represented the blood drops from the cruel thorns in the crown of Jesus. In Isaiah 60:13 we find these words: “The Glory of Lebanon shall come unto you, the fir tree, the pine tree and the box together, to beautify the place of your sanctuary.” The Advent Wreath have four purple candles, all placed equidistant around the outside of the circle. (In the middle of the circle is placed a white candle, known as the Christ Candle. Lighting this candle is done on Christmas Eve and is symbolic of the light of Christ coming into the world. It is lit on Christmas Eve because this is when the season of Christmas begins.) Each of the purple candles of the Advent Wreath has a special meaning, too. The first candle represents the light of Christ as our Hope. The second Sunday the candle is symbolic of the light as Christ illuminating the way. The third candle represents the light of Christ as the bringer of our Joy. (Some religious traditions use a pink or rose colored candle in place of the third purple candle although its meaning of Christ as the bringer of Joy is the same.) And the fourth candle represents to us the light of Christ as the prince of peace. This is what we celebrate during Advent. It is a celebration that recognizes God Himself is coming. It means that when God comes, through Christ, His light will be a shining force for all the world to see. It means that we have hope for living, a model for living as God intends, joy in our lives, and peace that passes all understanding. The third verse of the favorite carol Silent Night, Holy Night, may best express it. Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at the birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth. Christmas and all it means is coming… However, first, we must wait some more. As we wait, we will patiently celebrate because we know He is coming! In the form of a baby! To bring the light of God into our world! May we pray: Our Father, we long for the simple beauty of Christmas – for all the old familiar melodies, words, and symbols that remind us of that night so long ago when the baby Jesus was born.  May the loving kindness of this Advent and the true Spirit of Christmas be found in the way we live, throughout this season and throughout all time. May we be both be assured, and the way we live be an assurance to others that the light of Christ has come into the darkness of this world. In the name of the one whose birth we celebrate, we pray. Amen. BIO: Lee McKinzie is retired from the Louisiana Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, although he serves part-time as the pastor of the Nesom Memorial and the Montpelier United Methodist Churches. Throughout his career he published several articles and study guides, was honored with numerous awards, and held positions of leadership in both the Annual Conference and National Church. He is married and he and his wife have one child.

December 2015, Healthy Life

Video games can help get kids moving

by Stephanie Ryan Malin

There’s a special kind of exercise that many parents likely relate to the video games their kids play at home—great exercises in patience, that is. Patience with their children who often spend hour after hour consumed with punching buttons and scoring points, often at the neglect of their homework, chores and pretty much everything else.

Although video games are often characterized as the villain, adding to the growing amount of “screen time” in kids’ lives, Dr. Amanda Staiano at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center sees them as a key to helping children get healthy and stay healthy for a lifetime. Her approach—if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

“Screens are everywhere in our lives, and they are here to stay. I’m looking for ways to use those screens such as smart phones, computers, televisions and tablets to incorporate more physical activity into kids’ lives,” said Staiano, who is director of Pennington Biomedical’s Pediatric Obesity and Health Behavior Laboratory.

This fall, Staiano began a research study for kids called GameSquad. It is a program in Pennington Biomedical’s Translational Research Clinic for Children (TReCC) that bundles sports, video games and fun in an attempt to boost physical activity.

The study is seeking volunteers between the ages of 10 and 12 years old to join GameSquad. Participants will take an Xbox® Kinect home with them for six months, and will be asked to play “exergames” (or activity-promoting video games) for one hour a day, three days a week.

“This is fun for kids because they don’t feel like they’re exercising. They are looking at a screen, playing virtual sports and being entertained,” said Staiano.

Staiano and her team believe that interconnectivity is the key to ensuring that the teens and tweens in GameSquad stick with an exercise program long-term.

“What makes this research study truly unique is that we are using online tools to connect teens and tweens to our fitness coaches, who will video chat with them and provide extra support and encouragement,” said Staiano.

If participants slack off, their friends and gaming coaches will know it, because unlike some other video games, the Xbox® Kinect tracks players’ movements and awards points based on how closely their movements mirror that of the character in the game that the player tries to mimic. To win, players must give it their all.

With nearly one in two children in Louisiana overweight or obese*, Staiano is devoted to exploring innovative ways to help children establish a healthy baseline early in life.

“We know that if children can maintain a healthy weight early on and avoid gaining too much weight, they are far less at risk to develop obesity, diabetes, heart problems or other chronic diseases later in life,” said Staiano. “Ultimately, we see telehealth as the wave of the future, and as researchers it’s our job to use every tool in our toolbox to create a healthier world for our children.”

Parents of children between the ages of 10 and 12 who are interested in learning more about the GameSquad research study can find more information at or by calling 225-763-3000.

*Figures from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ School-based Health Centers Adolescent School Health Program 2010-2011.

December 2015, Healthy Life

Five Pillars That Support a Healthy Home

by Kristen Hogan

At the Y, we understand that health begins at home and we support families in their efforts to build the five pillars that support a healthy family home: EAT HEALTHY, PLAY EVERY DAY, GET TOGETHER, GO OUTSIDE and SLEEP WELL.

Eat Healthy

At the Y, we believe that small steps lead to big changes. With a balanced approach, even the busiest families can discover ways to eat healthier and feel better. Explore these healthy habits, tips and tools designed to help your family improve your approach to the foods you eat and drink.

Play Every Day

Play may be the best way to prevent childhood obesity. By putting more play into your family’s day, you will soon find yourself getting the activity that will have your family feeling energized and strong. Explore these healthy habits, tips and tools designed to get your family having fun while moving and playing.

Get Together

Strong relationships are one of the cornerstones of health and well-being, and few relationships are as important as those between adults and children. The time and attention that you invest now will help your children learn, grow and thrive. Explore these healthy habits, tips and tools designed to help your family make the most of your time together.

Go Outside

Good things happen when we unplug and go outside to play together. Kids and adults benefit from contact with nature as well as unstructured play and exploration. Explore these healthy habits, tips and tools designed to help your family explore together.

Sleep Well

Sleep is an essential part of healthy living. So many good things happen when our minds and bodies are resting. Explore these healthy habits, tips and tools designed to help your family reassess its approach to getting the rest that we all need.

To find additional tools and resources for a healthy family home visit