When people of influence accept Christ and agree to follow His teachings, the Gospel message has an opportunity to spread rapidly. When those leaders happen to be a Muslim and a central figure in gang life, the potential impact is multiplied. When these new disciples also currently reside in prison, the beginnings of a movement can be detected.
Some leaders suggest that a movement is exactly what is underway as believers in the Huntsville area focus on people affected by the criminal justice system as a "people group."
For strategic purposes, a people group is centrcedefined as "the largest group through which the gospel can flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance." When the International Mission Board utilizes the phrase and lists groups worldwide, "prisoners & correctional officers" aren't included.
The believers in Huntsville didn't let that small detail stop them.
In 2002, challenged by the teachings of the Great Commission Initiative led by UBA Executive Director Tom Billings, Pastor David Valentine researched the Huntsville area where he was serving in search of "unreached people groups". With 5 prison units inside the city limits of Huntsville and 4 more within a 25-minute drive, a significant population segment was within the church's reach. Add the families of prisoners and correctional officers and the numbers total nearly 1/3 of the unchurched of Texas.
That's when First Baptist Church Huntsville launched an effort that has since resulted in a church start, expanding faith-based living areas within the prison units, and the conversions of not only known but renowned prisoners.
The key Muslim leader, scheduled for baptism in August, is already sharing his faith with other Muslims. The gang leader's transformation was so dramatic that members of the gang within the unit said they would not follow their own code of harming anyone who leaves a gang. "The gang said they saw that God was connected to what was happening in this man's life," explained Pastor Valentine. "Rather than hurt him, they blessed him."
In 2008, after 100 volunteers were putting in 1,000 hours a month at the prisons, offering discipleship and ministries to families as well as connections to churches outside the Huntsville area, Pastor Valentine stepped down from FBC to start Covenant Fellowship. With FBC's blessings, he established what is now a 250-member congregation focusing on individuals who have experienced the impact of the criminal justice system.
Currently, about two dozen volunteers participate in the Sunday through Thursday activities at the prison. Valentine is there two days a week working with medium custody prisoners who have continuing discipline problems and are housed in a high security area. With more than a year of discipleship invested, Valentine has seen many of the 245 with whom he initially worked be reclassified as minimal custody.
The request to work with the medium security inmates came from Warden Vernon Pittman. With two faith-based dorms for minimal custody offenders already at the Wynne Unit, the warden wanted someone to address the spiritual needs of those in medium security. The first three men grew to over 100 in a few months, and now more than 70 men have been baptized.
In fact, the program has been so successful that it received the Governor's 2010 Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award in recognition of its dedication to ministering to offenders incarcerated within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. At the recognition, Warden Pittman spoke of the program's volunteers.
"I've been inspired to become more involved with the volunteer programs within the prison system based on the motivation I've witnessed among the volunteers," he said. "They are relentless servants." Recently, Warden Pittman joined Covenant Fellowship.
As more inmates are coming to Christ, more housing is being identified as faith-based. In fact, almost a sixth of the population is now housed in dorms, floors, and the trustee camp set aside as faith-based.
Within the faith-based living areas, volunteers utilize tools that international missionaries have found so successful -- chronological bible storytelling, discipleship materials, and accountability groups. As they study scripture with the new converts and watch their progress as disciples, they are also wanting to identify men who will be persons of peace out in the free world and future leaders of new church starts.
"We want to share Christ with every man woman or child that is impacted by the criminal justice system, beginning in Texas and across the country," said Pastor Valentine. "Every year 700,000 individuals are released from prisons. We believe they and their families can be reached through these ministries, and that's why we've invested our lives in it."
To have such a nationwide effect, Covenant Fellowship works closely with the Restorative Justice Ministry Network, started by Emmett Solomon, a member of Huntsville FBC and retired director of TDJC chaplaincy. As Covenant Fellowship identifies new believers and begins the discipleship process, they expand their ministry to the families of inmates and correctional officers. Utilizing the Network, they ensure that families - no matter where they are in the state -are connected to a local body of believers. When inmates are released, they make sure there is a church ready to continue the discipleship program.
The Network is especially beneficial when dealing with situations such as the previously mentioned gang leader (whose name is being withheld for safety reasons). Prayer support as well as a safety net away from his hometown will be needed when he is released.
"Pray for this offender," asked Pastor Valentine. "Just because the gang in prison has blessed him doesn't mean the gang in the free world won't hurt him. We may have to relocate him for safety. When people say there's no persecution in the U.S., that's baloney."
The efforts of the volunteers have not been without detractors. Sometimes the challenges come from the very people to whom they want to minister -- including the staff.
"The correctional officers have seen a lot of con games by the offenders," explained Pastor Valentine. "They are holding their breath to see if all of this is real. Slowly they are seeing that it is. Some said they thought it would never happen."
And the movement moves on . . .
To learn more about how you can pray for or be involved in this ministry, contact David Valentine, Senior Pastor, Covenant Fellowship, at (936) 662-5784 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org