And the Award Goes to…Christ Church
Prison ministry outreach leaders of Christ Church UM of The Woodlands are particularly excited about their various prison ministries that garnered them the prestigious Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award this month.
Longtime prison ministry leader Stoney Burke has seen silent, hardened, non-communicative inmates break down in tears at surprising moments. CCUM prison outreach volunteer Glenn Smith recalls, “One time an inmate participating in a spiritual retreat type event we hosted within the prison found a placemat designed by one of our youth at his spot on the lunch table. When he noticed the young artist that signed it had the same name as his daughter, he just began to weep.” Adds Stoney, “We know, as ministry leaders, that placemat was hand-picked by God for that particular inmate.”
Ironically, tears are also a common response from the “brothers in white” who receive hand delivered bags of cookies from Christ Church UM, The Woodlands, volunteers as well as recipients of the annual Christmas Blessing Bags each December. “Since each bag is decorated with the message ‘Jesus Loves You’ and filled with toiletries and fresh fruit, these bags are very special to the men,” says Glenn Smith. CCUM prison ministry volunteer John Osborne remarks, “The prison menu of fruit and vegetables is largely served out of cans and one man told us that was the first fresh banana he had tasted in 17 years.”
These – and many more -- ongoing acts of kindness at the Hightower Prison Unit by members of CCUM recently landed the church the prestigious “Religious Service Award,” one of about 20 associated with the Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award. According to senior pastor Dr. Dan Hannon, the prison ministry volunteers at Christ Church drive an hour each way each time they conduct any of the eight distinct local prison ministry programs or participate in a ninth nationwide program called Kairos. Stoney served as the first Kairos weekend leader. Kairos #12 was just completed in March, 2014. Five additional CCUM volunteers have served as Kairos weekend leaders, including Joe Wilson (Kairos #3), Glenn Smith (Kairos #4), Sonny Donaldson (Kairos #6), Tom Gardiner (Kairos #10) and John Osborne (Kairos #12). In addition to the in-depth Disciple studies, the church has three volunteers who have become Certified Volunteer Chaplain Assistants, including Glenn Smith, Tom Gardiner and Joe Wilson.
Stoney, introduced to prison ministry in the late 1990s, brought the idea to Christ Church several years later. “Like anything, it started small -- with just me, initially,” he says. “Then, during a ministry fair, I snagged a few more volunteers and by 2007 the church council officially formed the Prison Ministry Outreach.” Others have gotten hooked into the rewarding nature of this ministry by helping to deliver cookies or Blessing Bags to each cell in the prison. They have delivered more than 2,100 dozen since they began their ministry.
Ministry expansion timeline
In January of 2008, CCUM volunteers Glenn Smith and Joe Wilson facilitated the first Disciple Class at Hightower (a unit with 1,400 men), and in February the first Praise and Worship service was held at the facility. The Disciple program has now grown to four classes, fourteen volunteers, and almost 200 BIW students. By 2011, there were enough believers to form the first faith-based dorm and start a mentor program. “We pack the gym for the Praise and Worship service, and unfortunately have to turn some away due to space restraints,” adds Dan. “I admit I was a bit on edge at first, but when we got into worship, that gym became holy ground as God poured Himself out in incredible ways.”
Glenn and third leadership sidekick John Osborne, who have helped expand the ministries deeper and wider, admit they originally had no intention of getting involved in prison ministry. “I had told several people not to ask me to do prison ministry,” notes Glenn, “But while I was taking an Experiencing God Bible study, Stoney was sharing his experience about Kairos, a Walk to Emmaus type event at Hightower. That really appealed to me and I was soon saying ‘yes’ to lead a Disciple class or sponsor one of my brothers in white for the retreat weekend.” John adds, “I said no, no, no on many occasions, but God got my attention while we were distributing our Blessing Bags. I thought to myself I would do it one time just to shut them up. Six years later, I can say I find it is a true blessing to go over there every Wednesday night to lead Disciple Bible studies.”
“The greatest gift you can give someone in prison is the gift of your time,” says John, “and we think our time – longevity with this type of expanding ministry – is what set Christ Church apart from others who were nominated by wardens of up to 114 more prisons. Some churches do a little here and there, but Christ Church has continued to grow our volunteer base and add programs at Hightower for over seven years.”
“Never in a church setting do we hear the depth of answers and comments related to redemption and forgiveness as we do from our brothers in white,” adds Stoney. “The warden and chaplain nominated our church for this award having seen a great change over the years in the atmosphere at Hightower – from the guards to staff to inmates. Having as many as 20% of the population there involved in a religious activity has had a notably calming effect.”
Awards and Rewards
Rev. Mark Picket says, “As chairperson of Restorative Justice Ministry for the Texas Annual Conference, when I heard that Christ Church had been selected this year to receive the “Religious Service Award,” I was so proud for them, not only of Stoney, John and Glenn, but of Sr. Pastor Dr. Hannon and the entire congregation for their outstanding ministry at the Hightower Unit in Dayton.”
He adds, “As a Regional Chaplain for TDCJ, I was involved in the nomination and selection of the various ministries and volunteers for annual recognition, so I know what is involved in the process. What’s significant to me is that out of over 20,000 faith-based volunteers in TDCJ throughout the state, only around 20 individuals and ministries are recognized on an annual basis. Christ Church has been selected this year because of their commitment and faithfulness to taking God’s love and the gospel into prison. Please join me in congratulating them for this transformational ministry.”
Glenn, Stoney, and John were truly honored to be able to receive the Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Award in Austin on Thursday, April 17, on behalf of the entire CCUM Prison Ministry Outreach. At the ceremony, the three leaders received the award from Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Oliver Bell and Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brad Livingston. “We would never have even received the award if it had not been for the tremendous support of our entire church congregation and our three pastors,” notes Glenn. “They have all prayed for our safety and success and provided the financial resources to adequately fund all of our eight ministries. In addition, they bake cookies for us, color placemats, sign up for prayer chains and volunteer to serve as prison volunteers.”
“When all is said and done, we are the ones truly blessed as volunteers,” adds Glenn.