For many years, St James on the Lake, Kemp, has followed Christ’s call in Matthew 25:34-40 with its involvement of prison ministry at the George Beto Unit, a 3,500-bed, maximum security prison in Anderson County, where parishioners volunteer in the faith-based wings of the institution, and also with an intense four-day program of Christian teachings, called Kairos.
The faith-based wing houses 180 inmates and was one of the first such programs in Texas. The waiting list is long and inmates have to apply and interview for a slot. The purpose of this two-year program is to provide a safe environment for the men to change their hearts and their lifestyle before getting out of prison and returning to the general population. Without these changes, some statistics show they will return to the system within three years of release. Although the program is run and funded by Christian volunteers and is Biblically based and Christ-centered, the program is open to all religions and to those with no faith. Volunteers also work with graduates in a new program called G-4 which is three-days a week, Christ centered, Biblically based for men who are restricted to their cells for breaking prison rules.
Kairos is an international program that brings the experience of Christ’s love and forgiveness to the prison in a four-day program, much like the Cursillo movement. However, Kairos centers on continued involvement between volunteers and inmates as they learn further how to develop a relationship with Christ and how to live a life as He would have them live, whether it is in the remaining years of their imprisonment or when they return to the free world. The mission of the ministry is not “one day jailhouse conversion” but rather a changed heart and a changed life through a relationship with Christ.
During Kairos male volunteers (women are not allowed) go inside the unit each day to take the 42 participants through the program, the other volunteers prepare home cooked meals for the participants and volunteers, and partake in ongoing prayer vigils in the sanctuary of the host church to pray for each individual inmate participant.
Each Saturday, volunteers continue in prayer and growth groups with the prison Kairos community. In July and December, volunteers bring lunch to the inmates they have been working with and share in worship in the chapel.
Rector of St. James on the Lake, the Rev. Jerry Morriss and his wife, Carroll, are long time Kairos volunteers, and are the driving force for getting the congregation involved in this successful prison ministry. They have recruited volunteers to serve by ministering in the prison, baking cookies, drawing placemats and posters, providing financial support, and participating in round-the-clock prayer team during the weekend.
Here are testimonials from volunteers:
Annette Jenkins: I really had no interest in prison ministry and didn’t understand the concept, but finally agreed to attend one Kairos event ten years ago just so I could say I had tried it. I never thought I would go back, but God had other plans. In the chapel at Beto prison that day, I witnessed more fully the presence of God and His power to transform the lives of broken and hurting men than I had ever seen. I walked out of the gate of Beto that day committed to being part of God’s team to bring His message of love and salvation to men so hungry for love, forgiveness, hope and a future. We have seen firsthand the difference Kairos and participation in the faith-based wing has meant in these men’s lives. Their walk with the Lord becomes their strength in prison and also when they get out. Many of those men are now out of prison and most are doing well. Periodically we will get a phone call or text message from them to say “hello” and share what is going on in their life. They pray for us and we continue to pray for them.
Bob Jenkins: After eight years, I have connected with well over 2,000 men who have come through the program for some period of time and have personally witnessed miraculous changes in hundreds of hearts and lifestyles before and after they get out. I also know that God will ultimately grow many of the planted seeds that I do not get to witness.
Bill Shehee: I learned that so many inmates never had a father figure, had never been told, “I love you,” had never been hugged in their life, had no family that cared how they behaved or performed at home or in school. For many, the only way they had to experience some form of family was to join a gang. Because of their circumstances they were labeled as outcasts very early in life by society. So, it is unrealistic to expect them to grow up mild tempered with good judgment, caring for others, postponing pleasure for greater reward later on, and seeking to be a productive member of society when it was never modeled for them. Many have never even been inside a church or heard Jesus Christ discussed. As a result, so many inmates have very low self-esteem or concern for others. I further observed that they had no hope or joy in their life. It was an eye-opening and startling revelation for me.
Let me say that in no way do I think they were unjustly accused or sentenced for the crime they committed. The misery they caused their victims far out-weighs the length and severity of their prison sentence. I know that for a fact, as I was a Dallas police officer for thirty-one years. What I think is unjust is that no man, regardless of his crime, should have to live without hope and joy. And I also know that no man can experience true hope or joy outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. So, being a sinner myself, who has experienced a changed life through the undeserved grace, forgiveness, and salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ; I knew where he had called me to serve Him. “…...I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)
My revelation occurred approximately three and a half years ago. Since then, I have been blessed to witness God’s grace change hundreds of lives through the Faith Based Program at the George Beto Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. I often describe my experience of prison ministry as being able to sit at the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl and watch God do mighty miracles in the lives of so many lost and needy people, as He did in my own. For this opportunity, I give Him thanks, praise, and all Glory!”
Testimonial from Michael W., a former participant in the faith-based program: What the faith-based program meant to me was growth. God used the faith-based program to nurture and prepare me to fulfill the purpose of my life and salvation. When a person is in prison he or she is already aware of the chastisement of God, but ministry in this chastisement reveals His mercy, love, forgiveness, faithfulness and His refusal to give up on anyone. It is vessel that God uses to seek and save the lost that are in prison. Isaiah 61:1 ends saying, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.’ People in a physical prison are there because they were first in a spiritual prison. The command is to minister to them. If there is anyone that needs Jesus it's the prisoners - meaning those in physical and spiritual prison. I am living proof that God is working in the penal system. I and many others were delivered, cleansed, molded and shaped into the men that God wanted us to be. This is what ministry in prison means to me.