Voluntary Change

Several times, you've read my words that if any genuine and long-lasting change is going to take place in a person's life when they are incarcerated, it is going to be a self- initiated program of rehabilitation that will achieve it.This change might start ;(and had best start) with a change of the heart. Once a person starts living for Christ, insteade of for his own ends, all the other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. After all, thes cripture says, "Seekye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." (Matthew 6:33)

To that end, there are many programs in prison that have been brought in by the Christian volunteers who have a call to minister to those behind bars, in obedience to another verse that makes it clear that those who visit the prisoner in prison are visiting Christ Himself.(Matthew25:40.) I'd like to inform you about a few of them, because they can be life-transforming events.

The one that made such a big difference in my life was Kairos Prison Ministry. Kairos is aninter- denominational movement that seeks to bring the experience of a Christian retreat into the prison system, and amazingly, without ever taking us beyond the razor wire, that is exactly what it does . It was like a four- day vacation from prison, and I'll never forget it.

The specific events that occur during a Kairos Walk, as it is called, are best left a surprise, and I don't want to spoil it, but I will tell you about one of the specific events that let me know that God was "hanging out" with me that weekend, and definitely guiding the atmosphere of what was going on around me.

I sat down at my "family's" table (there are six of us to a family), and I saw there were hand-drawn place mats under a full plate of delicious food. The food itself is more of a blessing than I can describe, and included lots and lots of bananas, which I hadn't eaten any of in six years when I went. I must have put away two dozen over the fourday weekend. But back to my placemat. The volunteer noticed that I was left-handed, and encouraged me to come and sit at the corner spot so I wouldn't be fussing with crossing arms with any of my fellow eaters, so I moved down two spots. I wanted to see my placemat,; so I moved my tray of food, and picked it up. A youngster had drawn a crayola rendering of Jonah getting pitched over the side of the boat by his mates into the mouth of a giant fish.The picture itself was adorable. But across the top of it, a child had written, "God bless you. Stephen." I was instantly reduced to sobs as waves of God's mercy rolled over me, and this is why. Every day since I was incarcerated, I've prayed for the vic tim of my crime, and I pray that someday he can forgive me. that young man's name is Stephen. (I've changed this name to protect his privacy.)

I was already saved, but that demonstration of God's care and mercy made a powerful impact on my life. Not as powerful as what was to come. At the end of the Walk, the volunteers passed out applications and told us about Kairos Outside, a ministry aimed at the female relatives of incarcerated citizens who'd been through the Walk. Because of something that happened at my Mom's church 35 years prior to this, she had become angry with God, and angry with His people, and she'd left the church. From the time I was 5 years old, to the time I was 40, I never knew her to willing ly darken the door of a church for anything but a wedding or a funeral. (And one time when I was singing a solo at First Baptist Church in Odessa, and she couldn't stand to miss it.) But, a lot had changed in those years. Her oldest son was passed away due to complications from diabetes and a transplant, and her youngest was in prison. So, hoping she wouldn't reject my offer as just another attempt to convert her, I asked her if she would consider going on the Kairos Outside Walk, telling her all about how wonder ful my own experience had been. To my surprise, Mom said she would go. I was still skeptical, so I made her promise! She promised. With one condition. "Will they let me smoke?" I laughed . " I don ' t  know, Mom. I ' l l  find out. "

We got a letter back in short time telling us that smokers were very welcome, and while it wasn't allowed in the public buildings, a smoking area was provided. The note added that it saw a lot of traffic, so she shouldn't feel uncomfortable about it. I thought that was very considerate of them.

When the big weekend rolled around, they actually came and picked her up, and took her to the retreat center in Fredricksburg. I waited all weekend with lots of prayers and hopes to hear how everything had went. On Monday night, I received a JPay letter.It began like this,"The Prodigal Daughter has come home." Tears ;of joy and love ran down my cheeks. When she came to visit me the next weekend, it was a real celebration. Not only was I visiting my mom, but now my sister in Christ, too. It's not too much to say that Kairos Prison Ministry transformed my family. I can't wait to get out and be an active volunteer for them from the free world. By the way, they need ALL the help they can get. If you are a Christian who wants to make a big impact on the lives of prisoners, this is a great vehicle for your ministry.

The Catholic brothers have a similar ministry called the Kolbe Retreat. I was invited to participate in this event even though they knew I was a leader in the Protes tant church here on the unit. Of course, the retreat featured Catholic worship practices, and I didn't feel comfortable with some of them, but I learned a great deal and reveled in the fellowship of my "brothers from another mother", so to speak, who share one Father. These volunteers are no less dedicated to loving Christ through their giving in the prison ministry as their Protestant counterparts. And the candles and the vestments made for beautiful services. Singing was an important part of both ministries that I enjoyed immensely.

One of the most volunteer-intensive programs on the Steven son Unit throughout the time I've been here is the FaithBased Dorm. The dorm dedicated to this proposition holds 63 men, and the program consists of classes throughout the week that >are designed to grow the men spiritually and emo tionally. While many of the classes speak to the men's faith, there are also practical applications like finance and budgeting classes and marriage seminars. It was so cool watching some of thse guys who had been in relationship after destruc tive relationship awakening to the hurts, hang-ups and habits that they brought to the table that damaged their ability to love their wives and families. While the volunteers for the program came from several churches, the main force behind starting and maintaining the program was Faith Family Fellow ship in Victoria. There's probably no one church that has been more dynamic in the ministry here than they have, and many lives have been changed as a result. It didn't hurt that the oil boom came right as their ministry began on the unit. Since budgets in the area have diminished, including theirs, they've still been faithful, and it is much appreciated.

You wouldn't believe how big a difference some of the smallest things make. One former prisoner was called to minister to our little church at my transfer facility in Tulia. The thing he had missed the most while incarcerated was listening to good worship music, so he would load up a bunch of great worship songs on his iPod and bring them up to the church. By plugging them into the sound system, we all got to enjoy some of the most stirring and current sacred music that was encouraging the churches in the free world.

Another group that would come had a bluegrass band with banjo, fiddle and bass. The inmates loved it when the third Thursday of the month came around and after playing the old Southern Gospel hits, the fiddler would strike up the "Orange Blossom Special".

Dr. Gary Hall from New Life Baptist Church in the little burg of Yorktown, Texas has been the most faithful of our volunteers. He's been coming for almost six years, and he's only missed one service of his own accord, while he was in Australia visiting his missionary daughter and her husband. Other than that, as long as the prison doors were open to him, he's been here every single time, a remarkable achieve ment. No less impressive to me is his ability to quote scrip ture by rote. He rattles off verse after verse without pause as if he's reading it from the book, but never glances at a Bible. Talk about a sermon! It's a blessing just to sit and listen to the preaching.

Authentic Manhood. Basic Life Principles. Experiencing God. Class after class, program after program. And each one is a building block to a better, different life than we prisoners have known before. Each one is a stepping stone to a place where we can be a blessing to our family and a credit to our community instead of a blight. These programs keep alive the American dream of the pentitentiary, a place that wasn't just a prison, but a place where a man could come and get a life changed through a repentant heart.

There are many obstacles to these programs. The officers working on the units are often skeptical of them. They refer to the volunteers as "hug a thug" and other, much more deroga tory, terms. These men and women often sit for up to an hour or more waiting for the rank to" find the staff" to accompany them to their classes. (Here's a clue. The staff you're looking for is in the Officer's Dining Roomeating up the offender's food.) Classes held in the gym are affec ted by inclement weather. I've seen Dr. Hall preach in 100+ degree temperatures, pouring sweat, and in the winter when it was so cold every member of the congregation was wearing a jacket. The gym floor has a quirk, too. It was never properly sealed against moisture, so on certain days with high humidity or rainfall, the floor sweats. I've seen times when there was a 1/4" of standing water on the whole surface, but the service carried on.

To those who don't know Christ, it may seem crazy to think these men and women would brave these conditions to come in here and share love with a bunch of convicts, but the effort they are making at positive change in the lives of society's outcasts is paying dividends and rewards that cannot be measured. Not for lack of trying. Study after study has shown that the men who participate in these programs are far less likely to return to prison with another charge or a parole violation. So it might be time for the system and those who run it to start giving a little more respect to these unpaid, unsung heroes.

I want to close with the story of Ms. Wanda, one of the most beloved volunteers who minister on the Stevenson. Many years ago, her son began the first of what would ultimately be three different prison sentences. Ms. Wanda admits that her uncontrolled anger and the chaotic atmosphere of the home her son grew up in undoubtedly contributed to the delinquincy that would lead him to the pen. During his incarceration, Ms. Wanda was radically transformed by the saving of Christ, and her whole heart changed towards her son and his fellow prisoners. She started coming into the units, telling men about Jesus, about the change he could make in their lives, if they'd let Him. Ultimately, her own son responded to the amazing difference he saw in his own mother, and gave his life to Christ. A new man, Ms. Wanda can clearly see that he is not the same son that got sent back to prison again and again. He's now a good husband and father, and a blessing of a son to a mother who was willing to visit Christ in prison.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez