There are always new faces at Bryan FUMC’s contemporary service—about a third of its attendees come from a nearby halfway house for women transitioning from prison, and for many, those services are their first taste of freedom.
The Brazos Valley Council on Alcohol and Substance Abuse (BVCASA) has a Transitional Treatment Facility just six blocks away. It serves both men and women who have just been released from prison, but the church mostly sees the women. That’s because BVCASA’s policy to release the men and women at different times, and the women’s release time on Sundays fits the church’s schedule.
“About a third of our congregation are women from BVCASA,” explains Bryan FUMC’s Rev. Jennifer Webber. “And it changes every couple of months because the program lasts 60 days. We only get to know the women for a short period of time, but our congregation welcomes the ladies with open arms and treats them life family.”
Love and acceptance are something new for many of the women. After known by an inmate number—some for years—they’re suddenly treated like human beings.
“Because of this ministry, we have started a clothes closet for women in transition,” said Webber. “Our congregation has collected socks, underwear, dresses and shoes. When they’re released from prison, they’re given two outfits to replace their jail uniforms.”
And sometimes, they don’t even have those two outfits. Last summer, a group of 13 women were being transported to the halfway house, but didn’t have the necessary clothes. Knowing about the Bryan FUMC clothes closet for this very purpose, the van driver stopped at the church first.
“And our church was the first to call those ladies by their names,” said Webber. “Many of them cried as they put on normal clothes, normal shoes. They told us this was the first time in months they felt human.”
As the women became more comfortable in the church’s contemporary service, they begin to respond. The church has baptized many over the years. And many others have rededicated their loves to Christ.
Bryan FUMC’s Senior Pastor, the Rev. Rick Sitton saw the need for a contemporary worship service in 2017. They called it the Awakening, and at first, the 59-year-old Rev. Sitton led it himself.
“But that meant three services on Sunday morning for me, and it was too much,” he said. “I prayed that the Lord would send us someone to lead it. And he did.”
Webber left the Baltimore Washington D.C. Conference when her husband took a position at Sam Houston State University in nearby Huntsville. She didn’t have an appointment yet, but found that Bryan FUMC had a need.
“She was exactly the right person at the right time,” Sitton said. “Jennifer has taken this and done an incredible job. She’s is incredibly gifted.”
In Webber’s eyes, having women in transition as part of the congregation has been a blessing.
“This gives our congregation and opportunity to put their faith into action every single week,” she said. “We’re not waiting for a once-a-year mission trip. We’re doing our mission every Sunday morning. And that’s been a huge asset in the lives of our congregation. You can see the transformation in our local church.”
She doesn’t have a special message for the women from the halfway house—because they’re no different from the rest of us, she said.
“We’re all struggling with temptation and we all need forgiveness and hope,” she said. “I’ve learned from these ladies, as well. I’ve learned that we’re all really the same. We’re all one decision away from being where they are. And we’re all looking for the same thing—living water, fulfilment. Some people search and try to fill those holes in their lives by earning degrees and titles, filling their bank accounts, having the house and the picket fence. Some of us feel that happiness might be found by turning to another person. Some look to drugs and alcohol.”
The difference, she said, is that seeking to fill the holes in our lives by earning degrees and seeking wealth aren’t illegal.
“It’s different if you’re looking to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “But only on the surface. Don’t we all yearn for the same thing? We were created to be in a relationship with God. We were made for community. And I get to witness people coming back into community every Sunday.”
Like the halfway house, the ministry to these women is transitional. Soon, they’re gone.
“When they complete the program here, they go home, wherever that might be,” Webber said. “Many send us thank you notes or postcards, and let us know they’ve made it home. And we have new faces in the congregation.”