By Michael Williams
Professor of Old Testament, Calvin Seminary
In January of 2015, I and two other CTS professors, John Rottman and Mary Vanden Berg, along with a group of CTS students, had the privilege of traveling to Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) to see firsthand what God has been doing among the inmate population there. To see and interact with these Christian brothers was a tremendous joy. Most are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, but are nevertheless rejoicing in their new lives in Christ and were eager to learn whatever we could teach them. I’m afraid most of the teaching, however, was the other way around. We were energized and humbled by these men who are spreading the light of the gospel in the darkest of places. Through their efforts, God has established more than 30 congregations within the confines of the prison walls. These congregations are led by inmate pastors and supervised by Chaplain Gary Sumrall, a wise and effective prison official.
After only a short time among the Christian inmates of Angola, who comprise almost half of the 6,300-strong prisoner population, one almost comes to expect divine surprises. One of those came during that 2015 visit, when Chaplain Sumrall casually asked me if I would be interested in seeing an ancient Torah scroll he had in his office. Come again?! How in the world could an ancient Torah scroll end up in a chaplain’s office in the middle of maximum security prison in Louisiana? I said of course I would like to see it! So I and a small group of other interested people flocked into the chaplain’s office where a Torah scroll was carefully removed from its velvet sleeve and laid on a table. I was allowed to unroll the scroll, and when I did so, we all beheld gorgeous handwritten pages of unpointed Hebrew letters beautifully penned onto vellum sheets that had been stitched together to form the scroll. I slowly turned the scroll until the Ten Commandments rolled into view. Then, using the pointer, or yad, so that my hand would not come into contact with the sacred text, I pronounced the ancient words while our students, other professors, the chaplain, and a small group of prisoner-pastors leaned over the scroll and followed along. It was an incredibly beautiful picture of the new humanity that God has made possible through his Son, Jesus Christ.
And now the rest of the story. Chaplain Sumrall is a casual collector of ancient things. So when he saw a Torah scroll advertised on Craig’s List, he was intrigued. He discovered that the seller was a Jewish rabbi who had emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, bringing the scroll with him. The rabbi had himself been given the scroll by his grandfather, who had in turn received it in the 1870s. Its provenance beyond that point is lost in the mists of history. The rabbi and his wife have no children, and he wanted to make sure the scroll found a good home before he passed on. Posting it on Craig’s List was one way he was trying to do so. So this Jewish rabbi was contacted by a Christian chaplain and initial arrangements were made for the scroll to take up new residence in this most unexpected place where God was being glorified. The exchange was officially made in a Cracker Barrel restaurant (of all places), and the scroll was brought to its temporary home in Angola. But Chaplain Sumrall and his wife also have no children. And he realized his time at Angola might be nearing an end. It was time, therefore, to think about the next home for this much-traveled scroll. After seeing the delight in my eyes when I saw it, and after hearing me pronounce the words that had been so carefully written on it so long ago, he believed he just might have found that home. So the offer was made to CTS, and President Medenblik responded with the only reasonable reply. Yes! Now, after a brief and ignoble journey as carry-on luggage aboard a domestic flight, this ancient, eastern European Torah scroll has found a new home at CTS. A suitable display case is being constructed so that visitors will have the opportunity and privilege to join with so many who have gone before in reading the ancient living and active words that have been so carefully and beautifully written upon its rolls.