Bills long snapper Reid Ferguson was among a number of Bills players who joined team chaplain Len Vanden Bos on a recent mission trip inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Ferguson shared his experiences with The Buffalo News in a guest column.
What started as, or what I thought was, a normal mission trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, ended up being far from that. I told our team chaplain, Len Vanden Bos, that I wanted to go into this trip with no expectations, no thoughts about what I “think” it should be like. I wanted to go into this trip with an open mind and fully experience all that God had in store.
Little did I know that this trip to Angola prison would be somewhat life-altering in a sense. I decided to share my experiences to show you how God is working in this prison. Although it might not be easy to imagine from the outside, it was crystal clear on the inside.
Last April, when we reported to Orchard Park for our offseason program, I got the chance to meet the new coaching staff, including Len. I sensed right away that Len is a special man. Shortly after our offseason program got started, we began weekly Bible studies and Len told us about his yearly trips to Angola prison with a Chicago-based church that he partners with, Willow Creek Community Church.
I was immediately intrigued about his prison work at Angola, because of the time I spent in Louisiana at LSU. I knew that this trip was something that would be special and that I would remember for a long time, so I decided to stretch myself and embrace the opportunity.
Fast forward through our season to Monday, March 12. About 50 of us, including 10 current and former NFL players, met in St. Francisville, La., for dinner to brief everyone on scheduling and groupings for the trip. We were energized and ready to go.
There was a mutual understanding between our group and the inmates. We were entering their world and bringing some of our world to them. We knew what we were getting into and that security would be heavy. These men were there for a reason, but just because they are incarcerated does not mean that they cannot be reached.
We arrived at Angola on Tuesday morning and took a tour of the main prison base. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in America with about 6,300 inmates. About 80 percent of the inmates are serving life sentences, but it certainly did not feel that way when we arrived.
Some friendly inmates met us, including a man known “Bossier,” nicknamed after his hometown, Bossier City, La. He guided our tour of the main prison and the first place we visited was their Catholic church that was built by the inmates in 38 days – 38 days! I couldn’t believe it. All the paintings, stainglass windows, everything in just 38 days. That’s when I got a glimpse of how special this place is.
Afterward, we spent time with other inmates at their cells and workout gym, complete with a boxing ring and weight room, and broke the ice by handing out hygiene packs to them. The guys loved them! Then we spoke with a few of the guys and heard their stories and ministered to them. Many of them had Bibles that were given to them, and it was touching to see that others had scriptures written down on their notebooks that they looked at every day. It was truly incredible to see how God is working in the lives of these men inside the prison.
We then went and visited their “toy room,” essentially their version of “Santa’s workshop” where they made toy cars, trucks, furniture, etc. to be sold at the semi-annual Angola Rodeo every April and October. While walking through their workshop, Bossier told us that almost none of the inmates arrived in prison with any sort of carpentry talent or woodworking experience. That was hard to believe because the attention to detail was exquisite.
From there, we had lunch, then went out to the yard to watch some of their flag football league games. Once the games were over, Sam Acho of the Chicago Bears, stood up and gave a short, but profound, message to the inmates about what it means to be a Christian and how to be a light for hope in a seemingly hopeless place.
We joined about 800 inmates for a church service Tuesday night. It just felt so special when we walked in and took our seats, because I believe our Christian faith is the true equalizer - we all seek redemption and forgiveness through the blood of Christ, no matter how great our transgressions. We enjoyed the worship music in which you could hear inmates’ deeply heartfelt singing and praise. It was truly amazing. After the music stopped, Bossier brought up a player panel to interview them on their daily lives. One of the players was Steve Smith, the former wide receiver for the Ravens and Panthers who was the most popular with the inmates. Many of them grew up watching him play in the league and were very fond of him and what he represents.
Afterward, Pastor Albert Tate, from Fellowship Monrovia Church in Southern California, delivered his message. I will never forget one of the main points he put across to us, using sports metaphors to bridge the gap. Pastor Albert said, “If you give me a basketball, I will shoot enough bricks to build a house. If you give a basketball to MJ, you get the best basketball player to ever live. If you give me a tennis racket, I’m going to hit the ball into a window, but if you give a racket to Serena Williams, you get one of the best players in the world. If you give me nails in my hands, I would just be a man on a wooden pole, but if you give God nails in his hands, He will die on the cross for our sins!” And when I say the roof almost erupted in the chapel, believe it. That is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
On Wednesday morning, we were given the opportunity to visit Death Row. I thought to myself, “I think I could really do some good and possibly touch one of these guy’s lives. Even if I can just make a difference in one mind, that would be a successful day.” So, I decided to join the group and venture in. Once we got there, we were informed that most inmates are isolated in their room all but one hour per day. That hit me hard, given how much I enjoy the freedom to communicate with people daily.
Once they split us into groups, my group went to the B block first; we made our way through the cellblocks one by one, greeting the inmates. Once we got to the end, we joined Becky York from Pro Athletes Outreach and Floyd Prescott, a pastor from Opelousas, La., and stopped and spoke with a man named James. We sat and talked with him about his story and his faith journey. He told us he had been in prison for almost 22 years, and the most shocking thing was that he didn’t know what Facebook was.
This trip kept taking my breath away and reminding me to never take my freedom for granted. As we continued through the Death Row cellblocks, we met two men who Pastor Floyd had gotten to know in the past few trips to Angola. The first man we met, Bobby, sang us such a beautiful song that we could only sit back and listen in awe. The second man, Roger, seemed as if he had never frowned a day in his life. He reminded us that you cannot rush God’s timing and you should always strive to live a full and happy life. Our trip to Death Row was very powerful and left a mark on my heart.
The final part of the trip was the Wednesday church service. It was very similar to the service on Tuesday night, chapel filled to the brim with worshipping inmates, singing as loud as their lungs could handle. It was a very special atmosphere. After the worship part of the service was done, Bossier called up a few more players, including myself, for the second player panel of the trip. I think I can speak for Austin Carr (Saints) and Deonte Thompson (Cowboys) and say that it was gratifying to get to answer some of Bossier’s questions because we could tell that he, along with every other inmate in the chapel, took a great interest in what we were able to share with them about our lives.
As Wednesday activities ended, and we all started to part ways, I couldn’t help but think about how great of an opportunity this was for all of the people involved in the trip. I would like to thank our team chaplain, Len Vanden Bos for giving all of us the chance to be a part of something greater and experiencing this trip to Angola prison. Secondly, I would like to thank Pastor Steve Carter, my teammate Eric Wood, Austin Carr of the Saints, and future Hall of Famer Steve Smith, and many more for making this trip such a life-changing experience. I am already looking forward to next year.
I hope my short overview of my trip to Angola Prison encourages you to go out and make a difference, regardless of your platform.