Jerail C. Hardy is a modern-day Onesimus.

Once a slave to sin and crime, Hardy found redemption in a Louisiana prison. He’s now a free man preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to young men in urban neighborhoods.

Onesimus was a first-century slave who ran away from his owner, Philemon of Colossae, according to the New Testament book of Philemon. In a Roman prison, he met the Apostle Paul, who was awaiting trial before Caesar on charges of treason and heresy.

Paul led Onesimus to salvation in Christ and then sent him back to Philemon with a letter asking him to accept Onesimus as “no longer a slave but as a beloved brother … in the Lord.”

Hardy is the first graduate of more than 70 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola enrolled in the Onesimus Project. The innovative, faith-based educational program is a collaboration of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola, the prison administration and outside churches and denominations who will receive the men once they are freed, just as Philemon received Onesimus.

Hardy, 37, was paroled from Angola four months ago. He served 19 years of a 35-year sentence for a manslaughter he committed when he was 17.

Raised by his grandmother in Alexandria, he said he never knew his father, ran with the wrong friends, dropped out of school and sold drugs.

“That lifestyle led me down a real dark road. I made a critical mistake — a drug deal went bad — I ended up taking a man’s life, which I am very remorseful for,” Hardy said following a sermon he preached at Healing Place Church’s Friday night Senior Adult Ministry service.

“While I was on the inside, God transformed me, changed me,” Hardy said. “He gave me a passion to want to minister to those young men because I was one of them.”

The Rev. Jim Rentz, an Assemblies of God chaplain at Angola and one of Hardy’s sponsors, said too many of Louisiana’s youth “are pouring into our prisons, and the only way to stop that flow is to reach them for Christ before they begin a life of crime, and that’s what Jerail is going to do.”

Hardy is a 2007 seminary graduate and served as inmate pastor of the Full Gospel Assemblies of God Church in Main Camp for several years, the same church Angola Warden Burl Cain attends.

“He’s a game-changer,” Cain said. “He’s the kind of guy who can really change the community because he has the ‘Angola stigma,’ and the kids are attracted to that. He can talk to them where nobody else can. That’s where we can change the community through the Onesimus Project.”

Chase the demons out

Cain invited the Baptist seminary to Angola 20 years ago “to bring God in and chase the demons out,” he often says. Once known as “America’s bloodiest prison,” inmate violence is now rare.

Prison chaplains report about 2,300 of the 6,200 inmates regularly attend 32 churches, located in the six camps, led by seminary-educated inmate pastors. Chaplains estimate nearly 2,000 inmates are born-again Christians. So far, 278 men have graduated from the seminary, 35 have been sent as missionaries to other state prisons, according to officials, and more than 100 are currently enrolled in the seminary and 70 in the Onesimus Project.

“If we can change the prison, they (Onesimus preachers) can surely change the 9th Ward — and not just 9th Ward but the violence in all the communities,” Cain said. “It’s a God thing working out of the prison.”

Seminary President Charles S. Kelley Jr. called the Onesimus Project “our missing piece” of the larger vision of educating inmate ministers for Angola and other state prisons and freed inmate missionaries re-entering society.

“We share the warden’s vision for moral rehabilitation, and we believe a life can truly change through Jesus Christ and that a changed life can make a difference inside Angola and inside a community to break that cycle of violence that leads so many to Angola,” Kelley said.

Rick Sharkey, Angola’s chaplain supervisor, said the Onesimus Project is an academically vigorous course of eight classes, such as Old Testament Survey, New Testament Survey, the Life and Work of Jesus, and the Life and Work of Paul. “They have to be able to pass all the classes.”

The courses are taught at all the prison’s camps by seminary-educated inmate instructors, but most of the students are at Camp C, whose 1,000 or so men will eventually be released.

Inmate Pastor Clarence Frederick, 52, is serving his 27th year of a life sentence for third-degree murder. He facilitates the Camp C Onesimus Project and is pastor of the 70-member Community Church.

“Onesimus actually means ‘something that is useful’ (in Greek), but Onesimus was useless when he ran away from Philemon,” Frederick said. “But then he met up with Paul. We are the Pauls, you know, in prison, and they are meeting up with us, and we’re sharing the Gospel with them and those who are grasping it. Like Onesimus, we say, like Paul, ‘Look, he’s not useless anymore; he’s useful.’ ”

The Great Commission

Eric Matthews, 43, is a Camp C Onesimus instructor and is pastor of Christian Brotherhood Fellowship. Now in his 21st year of a life sentence for first-degree murder, he was the youngest graduate of the first seminary class of 1999.

Matthews compared the Onesimus Project with the Great Commission, where Jesus commanded his disciples to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world.

The Main Camp was evangelized first, like Jerusalem, Matthews said, then the other camps, like Judea and Samaria, and the other state prisons.

“Onesimus is like the outermost parts of the Earth, and churches on the outside, the Philemon churches,” Matthews said. “It’s amazing to see how a guy who is saved in prison can go all the way out to the street to minister.”

Philemon churches are key

The next step to making the project a success, chaplains said, is for churches of all denominations to become “Philemon churches” and accept, nurture and support the inmate graduates when they are released.

The Rev. Patrick “Packy” Thompson, pastor of Bayou Blue Assembly of God in Houma, bought Hardy a car and is connecting him with other churches.

“We’re financially supporting him on a monthly basis and helping him make that transition from prison life to the free world,” Thompson said.

The Rev. Doug McAllister, lead pastor of Journey Fellowship Church of Slidell, is Hardy’s “Philemon” pastor and church.

“We’re very excited to be a part of it, and we’re looking forward to helping Jerail integrate back into society,” McAllister said. “We are giving him a place to be part of a community of believers, an opportunity to do ministry, and be a place from which he can launch to begin his own ministry.”

Not just for men

Kristi B. Miller, assistant warden at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, first wrote the Onesimus Project curriculum in 2013 so it could be applied to both men and women, she said. She’s starting it in January at LCIW.

“The end goal of Project Onesimus is to utilize the transformed and equipped offender as an agent of positive change in the environment he or she re-enters so as to reduce overall criminal activity and bring healing and stability to high-risk areas of society,” Miller wrote in the project’s mission statement.

For information, contact Jerail Hardy at jhar0618@gmail.com; Angola Chaplain Rick Sharkey at Rickysharkey@doc.la.gov; or LCIW Assistant Warden Kristi Miller at Kristimiller@corrections.state.la.us.