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Effective Compassion: Setting prisoners free - S3.E5

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Setting prisoners free - S3.E5

At its most basic level, prison ministry is about sharing the gospel


In 2015 underclassmen enrolled in Darrington’s prison seminary cheered as they watched via live the programs first graduation ceremony. Photo by Matt Miller/Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Darryl Brooks grew up near Houston in a family of 12. As the youngest he pushed limits and “raised sand.”

DARRYL BROOKS: And so, in the environment I was in it was drinking, it was, you know, and all the above…

At 10 years old he was smoking marijuana. When he was 18 his best friend introduced him to crack cocaine. He said he was stoned during his high school graduation in 1986.

Life on and off the streets led to arrests. The third arrest in 1991 was for possessing—and attempting—to sell crack cocaine.

BROOKS: And so, at the age of 23, because I was, you know, in and out of jail… [12:19 -] I went to trial and ended up getting a sentence, got sentenced for 50 years.

Fifty years. That was a tough pill to swallow. But Brooks figured he could be free on parole in about five.

The parole board thought otherwise. And he eventually ended up spending 15 years behind bars.

But before the parole board freed him from prison, Brooks found true freedom in Christ.

BROOKS: You can be free and yet and still be incarcerated by way of you know, I'm saying physically, yeah. And so that's what I felt. I mean, it was like, wow, this is different, but it's good. It's different, but it's good…

The message of a visiting evangelist convicted Brooks of his need for Christ. A discipleship group made up of fellow inmates encouraged him in his newfound faith. And a Bible-based program established inside the penitentiary taught him how to live faithfully for God and his community.

Darryl Brooks experienced true transformation. That’s the power of the gospel in prison. The basic building block of all prison ministry. It usually starts with Christians on the outside. But once prisoners grasp the meaning of grace, their testimony and changed lives makes them even more effective at sharing the good news on the inside.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Bonnie Pritchett.

UNDERWRITER SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

Darryl Brooks graduated from the Prison Fellowship Academy  before being released on parole. Two years later he went back to prison to disciple  his once fellow inmates. He know directs the PFA program at the Carol Vance Unit.

Darryl Brooks graduated from the Prison Fellowship Academy before being released on parole. Two years later he went back to prison to disciple his once fellow inmates. He know directs the PFA program at the Carol Vance Unit.

Darryl Brooks is amiable and quick with a smile. He effortlessly seasons his conversation with scripture. But he grows somber when he considers the fate of the men he left behind in prison. Men who don’t know Christ. Men like he once was.

Brooks chuckled when he recalled how annoyed he used to get when his Christian cellmate tried to share the gospel.

BROOKS: He used to tell me about Lord all the time… I don't want none of that God stuff. You know, I heard about the God stuff when I was young…

Then Brooks got a letter from his sister asking him to read Psalm 30. Puzzled, he asked his old cellmate why she would tell him to read that.

BROOKS: I said, man, what is this? He say God is trying to deliver you. God is really trying to get your attention…

That weekend, an evangelist spoke at the prison. Brooks attended the assembly … reluctantly. By the end of the service, he had professed faith in Christ and signed up for a discipleship group. His conversion took a few days to sink in.

BROOKS: So, I found myself at a discipleship class on a Saturday morning, with about 15 brothers in white. And so, at this discipleship class, I had a massive encounter with God…

[WHAT A MIGHTY GOD WE SERVE]

Brothers in white. Those are fellow inmates, who all wear white shirts and white pants.

They opened the meeting by singing What a Mighty God We Serve.

BROOKS: As I begin to sing that song something begin to happen. And, my God, before you know it, it all went into this I went into this, I guess, a zone of just saying, ‘Lord, I just thank you.’ And I had couldn't stop if I wanted to. And it was almost like the more I said, ‘Lord, I thank you’ there was something that was being lifted up off my shoulders. And that day, that day was a divine encounter…

Four years later, in 2000, Brooks was accepted into Prison Fellowship Academy.

The rigorous program lasts for 12-to-18-months and is designed to prepare inmates for productive life outside prison. The Bible-based curriculum and Christian staff and volunteers teach inmates lessons many didn’t learn growing up.

BROOKS: And so, the program is driven by core values, right? Responsibility, integrity, and in productivity and fellowship, affirmation. The program is driven by that. Though the underpinning of the program is faith based…

It was a radical idea when it started in 1997. That’s when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice partnered with Prison Fellowship to establish the program at the Carol Vance Unit, southeast of Houston.

Chuck Colson had been trying to find a test site for the program for years. Almost a dozen states turned him down.

But it proved so successful in Texas that other states soon adopted the model. Now, Prison Fellowship Academy operates in 127 prisons in 33 states.

Brooks graduated from the original program in 2002. Today … he serves as its director.

BROOKS: We see a lot of guys commit their lives to Christ…

Every three months Brooks welcomes a new cohort of 40 inmates from units across the state. The program is totally immersive. The men live apart from the general prison population.

BROOKS: It's curriculum that that deals with our thinking issues that you may have. Its curriculum that deal with boundaries that you may not have, that you need to place within your life. And so if you really want to go deeper into the curriculum, there's Scriptures that coincide with all of this stuff. And so it's just very unique curriculum that is designed to address those issues that men have before they come to prison…

Academy prospects know what they’re getting into. The curriculum is taught from a biblical worldview but there’s no religious requirement to apply. Inmates must be within a year or two of parole eligibility in order to participate. And they must also be willing—and eligible—to transfer to the Carol Vance Unit where the program is housed.

The Academy graduates are among the 85 percent of all Texas inmates who will eventually be released from prison. The vast majority of those releases are conditional: inmates must complete one of a variety of rehabilitation programs. Prison Fellowship Academy is one option the parole board can assign a prospective parolee.

Jonathan Smith and his wife, Nicole, at their home in North Houston.

Jonathan Smith and his wife, Nicole, at their home in North Houston. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

That’s how Jonathan Smith ended up there. Unwillingly.

JONATHAN SMITH: I felt like I had already been setting myself up for success before getting into the program. So, my mind was kind of like man, I really don't need this…

Smith eventually learned God had different, and much better plans.

But, in the summer of 2002, Smith and his friends had a drug-fueled plan that landed him in prison.

JONATHAN SMITH: So, it was a plan gone wrong from the start. Well, the plan was to get some money, right? No, “How?” No, “Where?” No itinerary. Just go get some money. So that kind of turns into by any means necessary…

Alcohol. Drugs. And a fist full of life’s bitter pills made for a noxious concoction. And, on that hot, humid night, 18-year-old Jonathan Smith drank it to the dregs.

Then he and two friends stole a car and cruised around Houston looking to take more of what wasn’t theirs.

At some point during the journey, Smith said, he passed out.

Only to awaken to the sound of gun fire. His co-conspirators had attempted to rob a man and a fire-fight ensued.

Police converged on the scene.

JONATHAN SMITH: And I received a 25 year sentence and I ended up serving 15 years…

Looking back, Smith could clearly see the circumstances and decisions that led to his incarceration.

SMITH: I got myself involved with some people. And by no means do I blame anybody that I associated myself with… But you stick your neck on the line for your friends. And it's not morally correct… So, it was a plan gone wrong from the start…So that type of stuff can get you as a misguided youth in some trouble.

Once in prison, he created a new plan … this time for getting out. He diligently checked off all the boxes the Texas Parole Board required. That’s why he balked at having to complete the Prison Fellowship Academy program before going home.

But about two weeks into the academy orientation, Smith realized God wasn’t a box he could just check off.

JONATHAN SMITH: However, after being there for a while, I did realize that it was it was necessary. And two, there's no other place I could have been released from where I’d walk out a better man…

Classes and programs are a vital part of the reformation process. But even in prison, discipleship happens in community, just like it does on the outside. In church.

Gary Hill knows a thing or two about that. He’s the senior executive pastor at Sugar Creek Baptist Church, a multi-campus congregation near Houston.

In 2010, a desperate phone call led Sugar Creek to broaden its view of what church membership looks like.

HILL: Eleven years ago, I was the the minister on call for one week out of the year. And we had an inmate from the Fort Bend County Jail call me. He was one of our members...

The man had repeatedly stabbed his week-old son. The baby survived.

HILL: So, he got a 40-year sentence. Well, he was extremely distraught. The day or two after he was incarcerated... And he had a great fear that nobody cared about him. His family was going to disown him. His life was over. And I told him, ‘I’ll come and visit you. I'll visit you every week while you're here.’ And so I began that process, I led him to Christ, I began to disciple him…

Discipling one man turned into a Bible study for 20 inmates at the Fort Bend County Jail.

Hill’s ministry at the county jail and, eventually, the nearby maximum-security state prison then known as Darrington prompted other church staff and members to join him.

HILL: And we, because of the fact that we were there, guys were asking us, how can I be a part of Sugar Creek Baptist Church…

The inmates at Darrington weren’t content being the recipients of church ministry. They wanted to be the church.

So in 2019, working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the pastoral staff formed an inmate-led church service that mirrored the home church campus. Sugar Creek Baptist Church Pastor Mark Hartman explained the new partnership in a special announcement to the congregation on the outside.

HARTMAN: On October the 9, a Wednesday night, we began a weekly Wednesday night service there. And as soon as I walked in there I was greeted by two, three different greeters who said, ‘Welcome to Sugar Creek Baptist Church.” [congregation applause] Yes! That’s how I was welcomed when I went into that service…

Hill said the prisoners took responsibility for starting and maintaining their new church.

HILL: So, there was a praise band that was put together. And then we had field ministers, their ministers there that helped coordinate our ushers, our greeters, our guys who receive men at the invitation time…

Inmates who make a profession of faith are assigned to a discipleship group.

The worship service takes place each Wednesday in the Darrington chapel. The only element of the service that is not inmate-led is a video of the previous Sunday’s sermon. Sometimes pastors speak in-person.

But in March 2020, five months after the church started, the pandemic put it all on pause as the TDCJ prohibited or strictly limited large gatherings and in-person visitation.

As of January, services remained on hold.

HILL: It was shut down. Can’t get in there. You only get into Darrington from one to five o'clock Monday through Friday for one hour. That's it. And only one person from your church can come in…

BONNIE PRITCHETT: What are you hearing from the inmates?

HILL: Very discouraged. Very discouraged that we aren’t out there. They really miss us. It was a big part of their existence and encouragement…

That sudden disconnect from people in the free world created a sense of isolation.

But isolation is all some prisoners know. These are the men and women living on Death Row or in Administrative Segregation, also called Ad Seg. They spend 23 hours out of every day in their cells.

Alone.

Herbert Troup Foster

Herbert Troup Foster Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

FOSTER: I mean, the one word I could probably describe that area was hopelessness. It's basically like living in a coffin with some privileges…

That’s Hubert Troup Foster. He lived in one of those coffins for seven and a half years.

FOSTER: You get out of your cell an hour a day to go walk around another cell that is bigger… You go outside twice a day for an hour by yourself. And all you can do there is shoot a basketball. So, it's a hopelessness… I mean, you can't call home. You can't touch your family at visits. You don't get contact visits. Every day they’re reminding you that you're so dangerous, they got to handcuff you before they even let you out of a cell. So, it's kind of it's hopeless feeling and hopelessness breeds desperation…

I spoke with Foster in September at the Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas.

Our conversation was a “no-contact” meeting. He sat in a caged-in phone booth. A plexiglass panel separated us. Behind Foster, a grated metal door, painted white, locked him inside the small space. We spoke over two-way phones.

Foster was convicted of capital murder in 1999 for the death of Ruben Lopez. He said the jury was one or two votes shy of sending him to Death Row.

Once behind bars, his behavior and gang affiliation got him sent to Administrative Segregation where hopelessness began breeding desperation.

Then God called him out of his coffin.

FOSTER: But I got on my knees one night, and I prayed. And I asked the Jesus of my youth, if he’s real, show me. And I said, you're gonna have to do it because I can't because I'm about I'm about to quit. And I don't know what happened. I laid back down. And I got convicted. And something inside me was telling me Well, you've been saying you’re a Christian since you was a kid, but you ain't never walked it…

The thought propelled him off his bunk and he began shoving pornographic magazines out from under the door of his cell. He scoured his 10-foot-by-10-foot living space trying to rid it of any negative influence.

FOSTER: And it was, I didn't realize it at the time. But I finally realized that was the day I surrendered. And I began trying to walk out my faith… Because something that was always missing was no longer missing. I was in a 10 by 10 foot cell, but I had more peace than I'd ever had in my life…

Michael Allen is a Field Minister at the Gibb Lewis Unit where he is  an inmate. He leads bible studies and cares for inmates in the administrative  segregation. Before being transferred to the Lewis unit, he and fellow Field Minister  took the gospel to Death Row at the Polunsky Unit.

Michael Allen is a Field Minister at the Gibb Lewis Unit where he is an inmate. He leads bible studies and cares for inmates in the administrative segregation. Before being transferred to the Lewis unit, he and fellow Field Minister took the gospel to Death Row at the Polunsky Unit. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Foster’s friend, Michael Allen, has a similar story. Drugs, anger, and robbery—while on parole—earned him a life sentence in 2008.

ALLEN: So, as you can tell, I've been locked up most my life. Like I say, in the last 50 years, I've been free three of those years…

Allen is 71 years old. I met him for a no-contact interview. The door locking Allen into his side of the two-way phone booth was solid steel. His voice echoed in the confined space.

ALLEN: I’ll give you the testimony here…

When Allen ran out of the store he robbed, police were standing by his car so he fled into the woods to hide.

ALLEN : I prayed because you know, I've always believed in God. I pray now then I actually fell asleep and when I woke up I had a I had a feeling that everything was gonna be all right, you know? And I got up and I walked out of the woods and I turned myself in and knowing full well what I was facing…

Both Michael Allen and Troup Foster are serving life sentences. That made them ineligible for release programs like Prison Fellowship Academy. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t grow in their faith or share it with others.

They just needed a little training first.

DENNY AUTREY: Because what this degree is it's really a pastoral ministries degree, or a church planting degree, and so they are versed in Bible study… Some of these guys are great in Bible counseling…

That’s Denny Autrey, director of operations for Prison Seminary Foundation. The program grew from Louisiana’s notoriously violent Angola prison. That’s where warden Burl Cane introduced the term “Moral Rehabilitation” into the U.S. prison system lexicon. Cane believed prisoners could be taught to live civilly and that true rehabilitation comes from a redeemed soul. So he partnered with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to establish a seminary inside the prison.

Today, Autrey works with Cane to run the Prison Seminary Foundation. It collaborates with lawmakers, business leaders, and biblically faithful colleges across the nation to duplicate Angola’s success.

Texas launched its program in 2010. Herbert Troup Foster and Michael Allen graduated in its first class in 2015.

The first graduating class from the Darrington seminary  bowed their heads in prayer during the 2015 ceremony. The graduates became  Field Ministers and were reassigned to other units where they share the gospel in  otherwise hard to reach places.

The first graduating class from the Darrington seminary bowed their heads in prayer during the 2015 ceremony. The graduates became Field Ministers and were reassigned to other units where they share the gospel in otherwise hard to reach places.

Inmates confined to Administrative Segregation, rarely earn the privilege of participating in a small group Bible study, much less corporate worship services. And most volunteers aren’t allowed into those areas of the prison. Chaplains are the one exception.

As of 2020, Texas had more than 120,000 men and women living behind bars in 100 state prisons and jails. Just over 100 chaplains serve them all. That’s a lot of sheep for each shepherd.

That’s where graduates of the seminary program come in. They’re known as field ministers. They lead Bible studies and take the gospel to areas of the prison not accessible to outside volunteers.

Denny Autrey calls it the ministry of presence.

AUTREY: They also use them for suicide watch… And so if a guy gets depressed or his mother passed away or his dad passed away, he knows he can't go to the funeral. That's depressing. You know? So sometimes they'll just have a guest sit outside the cell and just talk with him or watch him or try to visit with him…

In Texas, the seminary is located at the Memorial Unit. That’s the new name for Darrington, where Sugar Creek Baptist started its church. Just like with Prison Fellowship Academy, the inmate-students live segregated from the general population. That helps promote accountability and creates an environment conducive to learning.

After getting their degrees, Foster and Allen remained at the Memorial Unit for a few years mentoring new students, facilitating Bible studies, and taking the gospel into the prison’s Administrative Segregation wing.

FOSTER: I was a tier walker over on Ad Seg…

Foster wants to draw men away from their gang affiliations and toward Christ.

FOSTER: The Lord used me to to lead 60 men to the grad program. So, I was having an influence on men dropping their gang affiliation, and signing up to go to the grad.

That’s the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation program.

FOSTER: And it was a blessing because sometimes I go in and I'd see two ex-gang members arguing over the Book of John, “I'm glad you're here, Troup!” And guys, ordering Grudem’s systematic theology, Erickson systematic theology. So, it's a blessing…

Last year Foster and Allen transferred to the Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas so they could take the gospel to Death Row inmates.

Huntsville State Prison, nicknamed The Walls, houses the  states execution chamber. It sits just behind a large Baptist church and a few blocks from the city square and Sam Houston State University.

Huntsville State Prison, nicknamed The Walls, houses the states execution chamber. It sits just behind a large Baptist church and a few blocks from the city square and Sam Houston State University. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

REPORTER: After more than 3 decades, a Texas inmate was put to death for the murder of two brothers in Pasadena. Rick Rhoades was put to death by lethal injection last night in Huntsville…

Although it might seem like fertile ground, sharing the gospel with men waiting to die isn’t always fruitful. I spoke with Foster the day after his friend Rick Rhoades was executed for the murder of brothers Bradley and Charles Allen in 1991. Just hours earlier Foster spoke with Rhoades and shared the gospel one last time. Seemingly, to no avail.

FOSTER: And I don't know, you know, I'm not convinced that that my friend is in hell right now because I don't know what happened between here and there. And I know TDC has a chaplain that meets him at The Walls. And Mr. Hazelwood spent four hours with him yesterday. And I know he was giving him the gospel, because I know Mr. Hazelwood and he cares for these men. But if nothing else, I know I gave Ricky hope. I know I gave Ricky friendship. I know he had a friend in me…

After spending a few months with Foster in the Polunsky Unit, Allen was transferred to the Gibb Lewis Unit in Woodville.

SIRI: [MUSIC PLAYING. WIND] Use the left lane to turn onto FM 3497…Turn left. [BLINKER SOUND] In half a mile the destination is on your left. Gibb Lewis Unit…

When I visited with him, he had just finished leading a Bible study with G5 inmates.

SOUND OF KEYS LOCKING AND UNLOCKING DOORS. DOORS OPENING AND CLOSING. CHATTER AND PHONES RINGING. 

That’s a security designation. Allen is a G2. The G5 inmates have the most violent tendencies. Many are locked up in Administrative Segregation. Allen met with the men in the prison rec yard. A chain-link fence separated the teacher from his student.

ALLEN: The class I was teaching, Authentic Manhood, and it's a very interesting class…

Allen said most men claim to know Jesus. But he can tell pretty quickly whether they do … or not.

ALLEN: I when I when I begin to talk with men, the first thing I ask him is if they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. You know, most of them will confess that they do, you know. But I know that may be that might be a little hasty…Because if you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, you're going to behave a certain way. That's my own personal opinion because I know through my own behavior. He changed me, you know. So, I know that once that relationship is established and you’re born again you're going to, you're got to change…

Having gospel conversations in the Administrative Segregation unit isn’t easy. The barriers aren’t only spiritual.

ALLEN: Most when I go in there and they all know me now so they'll knock on the glass and get my attention and I go over there and talk with them, see what they want you…

While Allen can move freely through the wing, each inmate is locked in his cell behind a steel door that has two narrow, thick glass panel windows. The men are not allowed out, even when Allen comes calling.

ALLEN: It's hard to talk through it you know you can get right here where the door, where the door opens and closes and that's where you can hear the best…

Their daily visits to Ad Seg and Death Row remind Foster and Allen of how much God has given them.

FOSTER: The peace of God has given me to find hope in his dark world and find a bit of light. It's a lifesaver to realize that you’re a created being and that God has a purpose for your life, no matter who you are, and that it's never too late… I mean, I can't imagine, you know, I look at those cells and I get convicted because I know I should be in those. That I could be already in the ground, not knowing Jesus. Luckily, I remembered the Jesus from my youth, some people don't know Jesus. Some people don't know that there's a God...

The Death Row visitation committee from Second Baptist Church  Corpus Christi. They are, from left Michael Kerls, Jerry and Debra Lunceford, Catana Painter, and Jan Trujillo.

The Death Row visitation committee from Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi. They are, from left Michael Kerls, Jerry and Debra Lunceford, Catana Painter, and Jan Trujillo. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

While the Field Ministers have the best access to Death Row inmates, they aren’t the only ones trying to shine the light of the gospel into that dark place.

TRUJILLO: I'm a retired school teacher, okay. Public school teacher…

That’s Jan Trujillo. She spent her career teaching in inner-city San Antonio, Texas.

TRUJILLO: And then the Lord was preparing me then, you know, as I as I sat at the coffin of one of my girls whose brother got killed for his shoes. you know, I mean that God was preparing me then. I didn't know that for what I was also gonna be doing in retirement.

Trujillo’s prison visits began 10 years ago when the Nueces County Jail chaplain asked her to lead singing during the Bible study in the women’s wing.

The female inmates often asked for prayer. One mother asked Trujillo to pray for her son: John Henry Ramirez.

TRUJILLO: Well, anybody who lived in Corpus Christi knew who that was because he had been running from the police for years. And then they found him and he was turned in by friend and so-called friend…

REPORTER: As you may know by now, Ramirez was convicted of killing a Corpus Christi convenience store worker during a robbery in 2004. That victim - Pablo Castro. And he was only 46-years-old…

After three years on the run, Ramirez was arrested, tried, convicted of capital murder, and sent to Death Row.

Trujillo said she would pray for the condemned murderer. But the chaplain asked her to do more than that.

TRUJILLO: He said, Jan, and I'm going to ask you to do something that may be very difficult for you. But I've been ministering to that young man, and I want to ask you, if you will go see him... So, I said, but I don't have a way to go and my sister said, she said, I'll take you… So, I got on his list and she took me and, you know, I thought it was you know, there'd be a waiting room for her to go sit in in the air conditioning. Well, no, they wouldn't let her in the front door, because her name was not on his list, you don't get anywhere. So, she had to sit in the car for four hours…

When Ramirez found out Joyce Watson had been waiting in her car each time she brought Trujillo to visit, he took his parents off his visitation list and added her instead. The sisters became regular visitors to Ramirez and other Death Row inmates.

Watson died in September. She was 81. Trujillo is 76. Over the years a small but faithful band of volunteers, all from Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi, joined the sisters in their ministry visits. The youngest on the team is 69.

So, on the fourth Thursday of the month, they load into Trujillo’s white SUV for the 5-hour drive- one-way - to the Polunsky Unit. They spend two hours visiting with a few Death Row inmates before beginning the long drive back home. In all, it’s a 16-hour day.

Catana Painter recalls how Trujillo recruited her to the team.

CATANA PAINTER: Well, let’s see… I was freshly retired. And I thought well, I might as well do something. So, she said, Come with us to death row. And I'm thinking, Okay, I'll go with you. But I don't make any promises. She said, I don't care… So, I visited with an inmate there. My first experience was a little bit strange. I felt like, if I had to do that every month, I'd end up like, he was, which is a little bit. What do I want to say?

TRUJILLO: Well, he’s been put in a psych hospital twice since then.

PAINTER: So I felt like that wasn't really my cup of tea. And I told you and I said, I don't know that I can do this…

Not all conversations are so unsettling. Volunteers try to find common ground with the inmates by talking about shared interests.

Eventually, the conversations turn to the gospel. Trujillo and her team encourage the men who are believers and hold out hope to those who aren’t.

REPORTER: Tonight the State of Texas executed Billie Wayne Coble by lethal injection…

And their commitment to obey Christ’s admonition to care for the imprisoned extends all the way to the death chamber. Three of them have witnessed two executions at the invitation of the condemned, including Billie Wayne Coble’s in 2019.

REPORTER: Just as Billie Wayne Coble whispered ‘Take Care’ to his family his son Gordon lost control once his father closed his eyes for the last time…

Trujillo and her friends don’t ignore the crimes committed or the pain caused by the convicted murderers they visit. But they’ve learned to look through the crime to the person, God’s image bearer.

After her initial awkward encounter, Canata Painter was assigned a new inmate, Geronimo Gutierrez.

PAINTER: I know he had to have kill someone…

She never asked why he was on Death Row. But Gutierrez had questions for her.

PAINTER: He looked me square in the eye and he says ‘Why are you here?’ He says, ‘My family doesn't come see me. Why are you here? I don't even know you’… I told him I said ‘Because you're just as human as I am. I make just as many mistakes as you do. And I said you deserve to have somebody who cares. And he says, shortly after that, he wrote me a letter. He says, ‘I love you big sister.’ He calls me his big sister. And I call him my little brother. Because we are brother and sister in Christ…

In 2020 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals commuted Gutierrez’s sentence from death to life in prison and he was transferred to another unit. It’s too far away for Painter to visit.

But Big Sister and Little Brother stay in touch. And Painter has been assigned a new inmate to visit—convicted murderer John Balentine.

No longer the reluctant recruit hoping to shine the gospel light into the lives of men on Death Row, Painter, like her friends, has become more introspective about her own sin. Sitting opposite men condemned to die for theirs will do that.

PAINTER: You'll benefit. You don't think when you go, that it's going to make a difference. But if you honestly go with an open mind, it'll change your heart.

And that change of heart is liberating … on the outside and on the inside.

That’s what Darryl Brooks discovered all those years ago.

BROOKS: Yeah. There's a peace that comes with that… But when individuals surrender himself to God and continuously praying, now he have what you call a relationship with God and so you can be in a space where you're confined, but you’re still free… So it gives you that hope, that one day, that one day, either I'm going to go home, I'm going to be released. Or, guess what, I'm going to go home—I'm going to exit out of here, and go be with the Lord.

Two years after being released, Brooks returned to prison for the first time as a free man. It was a gut-wrenching reality check. Nineteen years later, it still haunts him.

DARRYL BROOKS: When I walked back in for the first time, and I gave my I.D., which is my driver's license to the gatekeeper…

Brooks was going to the prison to mentor his brothers in Christ. Texas prison regulations require visitors to relinquish their driver’s license at the security station when they check in. But Brooks forgot to pick it up on his way out.

DARRYL BROOKS: And so, on the way coming back out, they normally… In prison, they don't call you by your first name. It’s by your last name. And when he hollered “Brooks!” and when he hollered my name, everything within me just rattled. All emotions just stirred up and I begin to have a flashback of when I was in prison… It’s like, man, I never want this again. Yes, it was one of those moments. It was one of those moments. It really grabbed me… To this day, I can sense it to this day. It was like, my God, do you really understand, you know, where you are now versus where you've been?

The thing prisoners need most is Jesus. But many of them also need life skills, education, and vocational training. All the things they didn’t get before they ended up behind bars. Skills they’ll need if they’re going to stay out of prison once their sentence is over.

Next week, we’ll visit prisons in Mississippi and Virginia, where Christians are helping inmates prepare for life on the outside.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Bonnie Pritchett. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.

UNDERWRITER SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/

North Korea is one of the most secretive, closed-off countries in the world, but World Help has a network of trusted partners there with 20+ years of experience smuggling Bibles and other aid to believers. These partners use donations to print, ship, and secretly distribute Bibles as well as food to people who have been desperately praying for help. And since North Koreans share their Bibles with trusted family and friends, each copy impacts around five people. Click here to learn more and donate.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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