Ministering in the Shadow of America's 'Prison City'
Image: Christian Bardenhorst / Unsplash

It’s almost noon on a Tuesday afternoon, and the sun is beating down on the pavement in front of the massive red brick walls of the Huntsville “Walls” Unit state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. It’s a place familiar to the media—the original home to “Old Sparky,” and the place where the state with the highest execution rate in the nation still carries out its death penalty by lethal injection.

A crowd has gathered across the street, but unlike on some occasions, it isn’t full of protestors or news crews covering an execution. Today, the crowd has come here to wait—not for those facing death, but for those anticipating a new life.

Next door, within view of the circles of barbed wire atop the prison walls, First Baptist Church Huntsville pastor Jason Bay rounds up his crew and heads up the street. Church bells ring out the time and the daily hymn.

“They are getting ready to do the prisoner release,” Bay says with anticipation. Joining him are Garrett Sims, the church youth pastor, and Jim Beam, the church facilities manager. Named after a whiskey, Beam is known not for his alcoholic past, but rather as the “face” of First Baptist’s successful prison ministry.

Within two or three minutes, the men arrive and meet Bill Kleiber, Executive Director of Restorative Justice Ministries Network (RJMN) and the head of First Baptist’s “Welcome Back” Ministry, who has called for prayer. Everyone there—friends and family members of the prisoners who will soon be released—joins in.

“Father, forgive us,” Kleiber prays, “and help us forgive ourselves.”

Kleiber knows how hard the second part of that prayer is. He had to learn to forgive himself after his own incarceration, many years before. It’s what motivates him in ministry today—to walk with the imprisoned on a path to freedom in Christ, and to walk with their families as well. Today, as a slow stream of men begin exiting the prison, he waits with a yellow pamphlet in hand that reads “Congratulations, Returning Citizen.”

Some of the newly released men have friends or family members waiting for them, while others will keep walking down the hill to take the bus to Houston. An older man greets his wife with tears in his eyes. Several younger members of the family wait their turns for hugs, and everyone gathers around him for pictures. Another man walks by, explaining to his mother that he can’t come home yet. He will be released to a halfway house first.

High above the crowd, a man in a white jumpsuit can be seen peering out of a prison window. His arms are outstretched above his head, clinging to the prison bars that still hold him. He can see the line of people. Perhaps one day, he’ll be in it.

Smartphones, Candy Bars, and Family Reunions

With seven prisons housing thousands of inmates—roughly a quarter of the town’s population—Huntsville has earned its nickname “Prison City.” The town is also the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (the largest employer in town), and 20 percent of the students at Sam Houston State University are criminal justice majors. Prison life isn’t a far-away notion here. It’s an ever-present reality—and First Baptist is playing a big role in facing it.

The prison ministry at First Baptist is unique in that it touches all members of the judicial system, both inside and outside the penitentiary walls. Every day, First Baptist sends volunteers to go into the Huntsville Unit to meet with prisoners attending chapel the night before their release, as well as to meet them and their families as they walk out into a life of freedom. Through RJMN, which was founded by First Baptist member Emmett Solomon in 1993, ex-convicts are connected to churches and other community support organizations around the state to help them readjust to civilian life.

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Christianity Today
Ministering in the Shadow of America's 'Prison City'