Listen to the podcast with Rev Andre Melvin, Temple Zion Baptist Church — https://columbiametro.org/podcast-005/
Andre Melvin, pastor of Temple Zion Baptist Church in the Columbia Metro Baptist Association, also serves as executive director of the Columbia International University Prison Program.
This program, which is immersed with the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), has helped 136 state inmates receive Associate Degrees in Biblical Studies and go on to serve as missionaries throughout the state’s prison systems.
“It wasn’t my idea to be in this position,” Andre says. “I came to CIU for my master’s degree. God allowed me to become a grader for a professor here, and that led me to a department that began to consider offering an associate’s degree to inmates. I was asked to be an adjunct professor for the new initiative and then was asked to be the program’s director. The Lord guided every step along that journey.
“Temple Zion really loves my family and me, and has been very supportive of my work with the prison program,” Andre says. “We’ve been at Temple Zion for nine years, and we’ve been blessed as a church with strong leadership and strong followers. It’s got a 112-year history and a lot of tradition, a predominately rural African American congregation with a lot of close family ties.”
The church sends volunteers to the Kirkland Correctional Institution, one of its choirs occasionally sings in a Thursday night service for inmates, and its women’s ministry has a large presence in helping the association provide an annual Baptist picnic at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institute for women.
The CIU Prison Program is open to inmates at the prison system’s Reception & Evaluation (R&E) Centers located at the Kirkland and Graham facilities. Both of these facilities are the entry gates to the state prison system. Prisoners are evaluated over 30-180 days before being transferred to ultimate location around the state.
Prisoners accepted to the program undergo a rigorous vetting process. They must have a minimum of seven years remaining on their sentence, which allows for two years in the program and then five years of missionary service within the institutional walls.
“Prisoners can relate to other prisoners in ways that we cannot,” Andre says. “Entering prison is a moment of personal crisis. A person realizes that life as they knew it is over. Prisoner to prisoner ministry is valuable.”
Those in the program must also be one-year discipline free, write a 500-word essay sharing their salvation experience and why they want to be involved, must have a high school diploma or GED equivalent, have references from a chaplain and others, and be able to maintain the rigors of college stress. There’s also an interview. Leaders within both CIU and SCDC look over the applicants.
“Sharing their faith is a key, too,” Andre says. “Those in our program must publicly share their faith at the R&E centers, and so those coming into the corrections system are hearing the gospel repeatedly.”
“Scripture tells us to minister to the ‘least of these’ and that includes prisoners,” Andre says. “We love for churches to get involved with us. There are opportunities for church members to be student encouragers, mentors, and help within the library.” Students attend class, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Andre says that each class cohort begins with 15 participants and while not all finish the program, there have been 136 graduates from 8 cohorts—men and women—and upon transfer to another state facility serves under that facility’s chaplain. Of the graduates, 17 have been released from prison and are invited to return each year to CIU for a luncheon. There has been no recidivism among the graduates.
“Two of our program graduates, still serving sentences, have been sent to Alabama to help start a similar program in that state,” Andre says. “We consider them our rock stars because they agreed to move further from family and friends to serve the Lord.”
The Melvins have been married 17 years and have two children. They recently build a house and moved in the community where Temple Zion is located. Pastor Melvin is a native of Washington DC and graduated from Carver Bible College in Atlanta before moving to Columbia.