“Jailhouse religion” wasn’t enough for Ellis Wilkinson.
The Baton Rouge native desired more of a relationship with God during his 23 years in prison and has maintained that fervor since being released 18 months ago.
“They came up with that saying (jailhouse religion) because so many people go to prison and while they’re in prison, they get religious and when they get out they just go back to the old life that they were living,” said Wilkinson, who had been sentenced to 70 years in prison for a 1991 armed robbery.
Wilkinson, 60, said he got more than jailhouse religion; he became transformed through a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.
“People can actually see God in me, and working in me and talking through me by the way I carry myself,” he said. “All praises be to God because I would be nothing without him.”
The Rev. Marvin Parks, pastor of In His Hands Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, has certainly seen God working in the life of Wilkinson. It was Parks who licensed Wilkinson as a minister in an emotional service March 20 at the church.
“You could see the life change in him,” said Parks, who met Wilkinson about 12 years ago while serving as a chaplain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. “He confirmed that God had changed his life, and (God) was making a difference in his life. … He has a kingdom mind-set and kingdom focus.”
Wilkinson preached the message during his licensing service, sharing his powerful testimony and conveying how God should be the god of everything. His sermon was titled “Who Builds Your House?” taken from Psalm 127.
“It’s not only your house,” he said. “We need to include God in all areas of your lives, whether it’s making decisions on finding a job or finding a mate. For the word of God tells us to trust in him and he will direct our path.”
The service was inspiring, Wilkinson said.
“Words couldn’t really explain it,” he said. “You could really feel the approval of the people and you could feel the love, and that meant a lot to me.”
That love for Wilkinson was nothing new, Parks said.
“When he got out (of prison) and became a part of our ministry, the church immediately embraced him,” Parks said.
While In His Hands immediately accepted Wilkinson, Parks said Wilkinson’s involvement in the church’s ministry was gradual.
“We didn’t get him involved until at least six months,” Parks said. “I had to see his walk and how committed he was. And he was.”
Wilkinson, who earned associate and bachelor degrees through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary while in prison, serves as an assistant minister and a Sunday school teacher.
Outside of the church, Wilkinson — who spent time in a halfway house upon his release in 2014 — said he’s been blessed with his own housing and a good job.
“I never in my wildest dreams would ever have thought I’d be in the position I’m in now and faring like I’m faring,” he said.
Wilkinson would probably still be in prison if not for an act he said that allowed those who had served 20 years or more for armed robbery and was at least 45 years old to be eligible for parole.
He was denied his first time before the Parole Board and had to wait a year.
He was denied his second time and had to wait for three more years.
On his third try, Wilkinson — because inmates were called in alphabetical order — was the last of 10 inmates before the board. The nine before him were denied. Wilkinson was granted release.
“It really was a faith test. When I went before the board, God really did his thing,” he said. “God showed up and he showed out. It was a blessed day.”
In all that he had been through, Wilkinson said he can now see the purpose that God had on his life, citing Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
“That’s a promise from God that (he) will work all things for your good, and I have been called for his purpose. I stand on that. I believe that I live that,” he said.
That strong belief system wasn’t unfamiliar to Wilkinson. He was raised in a Christian home by churchgoing foster parents after his biological mother abandoned him at age 3.
He said he accepted the Lord as a youth, maintained a relationship with God and regularly attended church. Wilkinson said he didn’t really get into any kind of trouble until about three years after graduating from high school. By that time, he was married and had a child.
“I went astray. I was like the prodigal son. I had more money than I ever had. Before you knew it, I was in the streets and nightclubs,” he said. “I was introduced to drugs. It was a spiral down from that point on.”
The marriage didn’t last, but the trouble continued.
In September 1991, a 36-year-old Wilkinson was handed the 70-year prison sentence for holding up a grocery store clerk at gunpoint and stealing a cash register, according to authorities. He was ruled a habitual offender, having been arrested for 37 different crimes and convicted nine times, including six felonies or crimes against the person.
Wilkinson fought for his freedom but finally turned his battles and his life back to the Lord about 10 years later.
“I found a renewed relationship with Christ,” he said. “After so many years of trying to do things on my own dealing with the court system and so forth, one day, I said, ‘Lord, help me.’ ”
God sent help in the form of godly mentors. He joined a Christian fellowship and started to share the Gospel with others.
“I began to grow spiritually,” he said.
Weeks later, he got to share the Gospel with more than 150 inmates evacuated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.
“I had the opportunity to minister everyday, preaching everyday,” he said.
Wilkinson eventually became the inmate pastor of the House of Deliverance in Camp D and went on to complete 240 hours of seminary training.
Prison allowed him to be successful for the first time and prepared for his new life, Wilkinson maintains.
“In prison, God cultivated me. I got a chance to meet men in prison that were serious about their walk with the Lord. I had great mentors, great examples, and had the desire to do right,” he said. “I had the desire to walk with the Lord. I had the desire to change. I desired to be different. … Once you have the desire, God can work with you. I had to give God my will and take his will.”
Two lines continue to echo in my mind from Tyler Perry’s “The Passion” musical broadcast in New Orleans on Palm Sunday.
The first: “If Jesus walked into this city today, would we listen to him, or just say, ‘Hey, Jesus — can we get a selfie?’ ”
The line was symbolic of the uniqueness and overall “hipness” of the production with its modern settings and modern secular music — including Trisha Yearwood playing Mary and singing Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love” and former “American Idol” Chris Daughtry as Judas .
The other Perry line that stood out was when he remarked about seeing the strangeness of the 20-foot, lighted cross and the processional making its way down Bourbon Street of all places. Surely, that was an emotional image and signified why Christians still believe in the power of the cross some 2,000 years after Jesus carried it on his way to crucifixion.
As for the two-hour, semi-live musical (a majority of shots were prerecorded in very familiar areas of the city) on Fox, it was a fabulous effort by host/narrator Perry and a fine cast of singers.
Jencarlos Canela was terrific as Jesus, Prince Royce was underrated as Peter and Seal was the best during his short time as Pontius Pilate. The image of police putting Jesus in a squad car and an orange jumpsuit was eye-opening.
A few quibbles: Not enough of the high-energy Yolanda Adams, who opened the show and closed the program; a reporter’s interviews during the cross processional from the Superdome to the park were lackluster and slowed the momentum; and the play seemed to lack emotion that I expected being among the crowd. I did get a better sense of the emotion of the event later after watching some of television broadcast.
Tyler, of “Madea” fame, should be commended for bringing the attention to his hometown and its own kind of “resurrection” 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.
Much has been made about the price tag of the production, reportedly to cost Louisiana taxpayers more than $3 million. But I think the attention and money it brought to the city was well worth it.
And if someone felt moved or convicted enough to accept Christ or have a desire to know him better, then it’s hard to put a price on that.
Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Terry Robinson can be reached by phone at (225) 388-0238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.