I never felt called to prison ministry. I had no desire to work with those who were called, but I did feel responsible to support those who were called. About ten to fifteen years ago, the prison volunteers from our church would take home-baked Christmas cookies to prisoners in a nearby prison. They wanted each prisoner to get three dozen cookies for Christmas. “I may not be called to prison ministry," I thought, "but I can support these volunteers with homemade cookies.” So, I baked cookies.
The first year, I baked one batch of cookies—exactly three dozen. Well, that was easy, so the next two years I baked fifteen dozen cookies to go to prisoners at Christmas. Then, the prison changed the rules and required commercially prepared and packaged cookies. So my cookie baking for the prisoners came to an end. And I thought my assistance with prison ministry came to an end, as well. Boy, was I wrong!
Getting Roped In
David Valentine and Jerry Phillips, respectively the pastor and minister of missions of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville had been invited to start a faith-based dorm in the Wynne Unit—a prison unit in the area. In 2009, our UBA team helped with this endeavor by creating a story set just for prison to be the Bible curriculum for the dorm. At David’s invitation, we invited pastors and ministers of missions to tour the facility and see the faith-based dorm.
Our involvement grew, and now we are training inmates in the basics of house churches or organic churches. UBA currently has a team of seven volunteers that rotate every three to four Monday nights. Every Monday, one team member meets with men in the Trustee Camp and one with men behind the walls and barbed wire. Our team is made up of pastors, staff, ministry leaders, and lay leaders from UBA churches and partners. Five of these team members have been serving as volunteers in the unit since the beginning in 2013.
The men practice a house church format as they learn biblical principles about church and leadership. After completing a one year course, they receive a diploma and become assistant trainers for a second year. We really see the men blossom as they take on leadership by sharing their experiences and modeling what they have learned. Some of our graduates have told us how the class has changed their lives and helped deepen their walk with the Lord. Others have mentioned that they now know they can start something when they get out.
We originally wanted these men to practice house church when they got out of prison because so many ex-offenders have trouble finding a church home. But God had other ideas.
Seeing True Change
Two men in our first class were former gang leaders. One had been a high ranking officer in the Crips, and the other had been a leader in the Bloods. I am not exaggerating when I say the gangs were mortal enemies. After becoming believers, these leaders of opposing gangs become brothers in Christ. They recruited a couple of other inmates and approached the warden about a transfer from the faith-based dorm—where they had some freedom and privileges—to Cell Block A.
Cell Block A is the first step out of solitary confinement and is a place where the roughest offenders were housed. In the faith-based dorm, they had private cubicles in a large dorm area. They were able to have a place to display pictures. They could have a fan to use in the summer—which is a big deal as prisons are not air-conditioned. They made these sacrifices because they wanted to practice what they were learning in Cell Block A. This is the level of commitment and growth that we see in the lives of these men
Awakening in a Cell Block
The warden approved the transfer, and these men walked into a cell block where there were no believers. Immediately, a huge man walked up to “C,” the former officer in the Crips. He wanted to know what the men were doing in his cell. C responded that he loved Jesus and was there to tell the guys that Jesus loved them, too.
The man fell on C’s shoulder weeping and committed to following Christ. They started a Bible study, and sixteen men became followers of Christ. A leader was raised up to take over the group, and C and his team returned to the faith-based dorm.
“C” and his partner from the Bloods, “E,” are out of prison now. They have both started Bible studies at their job locations and in homes.
Continuing in Obedience
It has been an amazing journey to watch men grow and see their lives transformed as they are discipled. We have had one or two that wanted to be transferred to the Wynne Unit. They weren’t believers, but they applied to the class and were accepted. Over the course of the year, we saw the transformation in their lives as they began to walk with Jesus and share their story with others.
We feel the Holy Spirit moving in the Texas prison system, and we are so excited to be a part of that. Although I never felt called to prison ministry, I definitely wanted to be obedient. Through that obedience, it has been a great joy to see the gospel transform the lives of the men we work with.
If you would like to be a part of this journey, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sally Hinzie is a Church Consultant who has worked at UBA for many years. Her primary areas of ministry focus include church planting, bible storying training, organic church, and ministry implementation.