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BATON ROUGE, La. — Over four decades, the inmates of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women have counted on Glenda Tate.
Tate, 73, began volunteering with the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ prison ministry more than 42 years ago, leading Bible studies on Tuesday afternoons and worship services on Sundays.
“We were always there,” Tate said of her visits to the prison. “We didn’t cancel at the last minute. When the attendance got down to one inmate on Tuesday afternoon, we still went.”
“We were always there. We didn’t cancel at the last minute. When the attendance got down to one inmate on Tuesday afternoon, we still went.”
She took her ministry a step further by working in the prison chaplain’s office as the assistant volunteer coordinator at the state’s only prison for women. Tate committed herself to the unpaid position for more than 20 years, managing more than 40 groups and 500 individuals who volunteer with the state’s female inmates.
This fall Tate will leave Baton Rouge and her ministry. Her husband of 53 years, Bob Tate, died following a stroke last year, and she has decided to move to Oregon and live near her two daughters.
She cannot be easily replaced, said Gary Sumrall, a senior chaplain in the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections who worked with Tate at the women’s correctional institute.
“I still haven’t figured out why God allowed our paths to cross,” he said, “but I’m eternally grateful he did.”
The dedication and consistency Tate has shown are rare, Sumrall said, and consistency is among the most important facets of ministering to inmates.
“They’ve never had consistency in their lives,” he said. “People are always telling them they are going to do something, but they never do. Seeing that consistency gives them hope in their own lives and inspires them to dedicate themselves.”
Growing up in the Birmingham, Ala., area, Tate had no special connection with prisons or inmates. However, she did have a model of empathy and care in her mother, the family’s spiritual leader who took the children to church.
Tate met her husband, Bob, at the Tarrant Church of Christ near Birmingham, and they traveled to Kansas to live with his uncle so he could finish college. In his career as a certified public accountant, the family moved from Kansas to Florida to Baton Rouge and, briefly, to Chicago and Virginia.
When her family moved to Baton Rouge 42 years ago for her husband’s job with a chemical manufacturer, Tate wanted to get involved with her new congregation and found the prison ministry.
“Someone asked me to join their team, and I fell in love with it,” she said.
“Someone asked me to join their team, and I fell in love with it.”
Right away she put her organizational skills to work, scheduling teams within the ministry and typing lessons at her kitchen table.
Strict rules for volunteers meant Tate could not connect with inmates by giving them candy or even books. She could not treat one inmate any differently than the 1,000 others, so she connected with the women by being fair, non-judgmental and real. They could tell if a volunteer was less than genuine.
“They can spot you in a heartbeat,” she said.
Over the decades Tate has grown close to the women she mentors. Their stories weigh on her heart.
“A lot of them were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “They are paying a hefty price.”
Glenda Tate’s daughter April Tate, a fifth-grade teacher, sees her mother care for inmates the way passionate teachers care for their students.
“It goes deeper than just empathy,” April Tate said. “There’s a deeper level of compassion that she has that I can only hope to attain myself.”
Most of the women Glenda Tate met in the correctional institute had little Bible knowledge.
“Some of them had no background at all,” she said. “We did the basics. We started at the Old Testament and would go right on through.”
“It goes deeper than just empathy. There’s a deeper level of compassion that she has that I can only hope to attain myself.”
The South Baton Rouge church’s Tuesday afternoon Bible studies grew to include 30 to 40 women who attended in their free time after a day of working on the prison grounds. On Sundays, the attendance rose to 100.
About 20 years ago, South Baton Rouge took on another prison ministry, a Bible correspondence course using a Gospel Advocate curriculum, and Tate began grading worksheets from inmates across the country, writing them encouraging messages along the way.
In recent years prison ministry in south Louisiana has become more difficult.
A flood in the summer of 2016 closed the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel south of Baton Rouge, sending women to facilities across the state. Tate and other volunteers split their time between a wing of a nearby men’s prison that houses 200 or so women and a former juvenile detention center in East Baton Rouge Parish where 250 female inmates were sent.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, no in-person meetings have been allowed. The Tuesday afternoon Bible studies have been canceled and may resume soon. For Sunday morning services, Tate delivers recordings of the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ services on a USB flash drive to the prisons, ensuring the ministry maintains a connection.
For her decades of devotion, Tate has received accolades from state officials. Plaques, awards and a letter of appreciation from the state’s secretary of public safety and corrections adorn her shelf.
Tate does not keep track of the number of baptisms she has witnessed. The number of lives she has changed cannot be counted, Sumrall said.
“We won’t know until we get to glory,” he said.
“We won’t know until we get to glory.”
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