Finding Jesus in prison
By Lindsay Peyton
Covered in tattoos and dressed in a prisoner’s uniform of all white, Adam Zinsser spoke to members of Christ Church Sugar Land via video during their annual Restorative Justice Sunday. He recounted his journey from juvenile detention and boys homes to mental hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers before landing in the penitentiary at age 17. “I went through a lot, and prison hardened my heart even more,” Zinsser said. It wasn’t until he fully surrendered to Jesus that his life changed. And the ministry at Christ Church was instrumental in his transformation.
“God has been with me every step of the way,” Zinsser said. Now, he plans to become a preacher after his release from prison.
“God has called me to preach, to love His people,” Zinsser xplained. “He did something to me, and I give Him all the glory.”
Finding Jesus happened with the help of Christ Church Sugar Land’s restorative justice ministry, which was created to help inmates experience mercy, compassion and God’s unconditional love.
Ministry leader Betty Waedemon explained there are a variety of programs that bring Christ into the Carol Vance unit in Sugar Land. She is active in the Alpha program, a course focusing on the fundamentals of Christianity.
Volunteers lead Bible studies, assist prisoners’ families during Christmas and hand out water to officers coming into and leaving the prison in the Cool Water Ministry. There’s also the opportunity to lead spiritual retreats, Kairos and Jubilee.
Waedemon explained that the restorative justice ministry at Christ Church has been active for more than three decades. She personally got involved about 23 years ago, responding to a posting in the church bulletin.
The late Robert Crenshaw was seeking volunteers to go into the prison. “I went and found him after church,” Waedemon recalled. “He said, ‘What are you doing on Thursday?’”
And she has been hooked ever since her first visit, even though she had a rocky beginning. She explained that a man in her Alpha group intimidated her, asking, “Why would I trust you?”
The next semester, Waedemon was walking down the hall when that man called her name. She almost did not recognize him.
“He wasn’t the same person,” Waedemon said. “The Holy Spirit had completely changed him.”
He was only the first of many men transformed by the love of Jesus she would meet during her time at the Carol Vance unit. “I’ve seen lives changed and families come together,” Waedemon said. “I just see things all the time, God working in amazing ways.”
Each year a few of those stories take center stage for the church’s Restorative Justice Sunday. For the occasion, the Winds of Change band, singers and musicians from the prison, perform soulful songs of faith.
This year, because of the pandemic, prisoners had to remain at the Carol Vance unit. The Winds of Change performed via video.
A testimony from released prisoner Brian Townsen, however, was in-person. He spoke about being from a broken home, becoming an alcoholic while still in high school before turning to pills and later heroin.
“When the whole world walked away from me, God walked toward me, and said, ‘I love you. I’m here,’” Townsen said.
He explained that being arrested was “one of the best things that ever happened to me,” because in prison, he found Jesus.
Townsen recalled meeting Waedemon and the other volunteers. “They showed me Jesus,” he recalled. “They sat with me. They talked with me and listened to me. They actually cared about me. I felt His love through them.”
These days, Townsen has become a volunteer, returning back to prison as a mentor each month. “I remember what was done for me,” he explained. “I just want to give back.”
When it seemed like the rest of the world wanted to lock him up and throw away the keys, members of Christ Church were there to share love and mercy. “Something I can tell you from experience is that hope means the most to those without it,” he said.
Waedemon said that joining with the restorative ministry is simple. The first step is going on a Freedom Walk, which are regular tours at Carol Vance, held the second Thursday of the month.
“You don’t ever have to go again,” Waedemon said. “But when you go to Carol Vance you feel the Holy Spirit. It’s not at all what you think it will be like. People go in with their knees knocking and come out asking, ‘What can I do?’”
Inside the prison, men are reading stories to their children, recording them to give as a gift. Prisoners tithe from their commissary to support a ministry of feeding children in Houston. Men repair bicycles donated by Christ Church to give on Christmas Eve at George R. Brown Convention Center.
Waedemon said anyone can go on the Freedom Walks; registering first is the only requirement. And it’s a first step in starting a prison ministry for a congregation.
“Jesus said to go into the prisons,” Waedemon said. “He was serious about it.”
There are a number of ways to get involved, she added. For instance, when COVID protocol prohibited visiting Carol Vance, church members began writing letters. Volunteers are still needed to become penpals with the prisoners.
Waedemon can provide names of prisoners in need of letters and emails. She also facilitates sending cards of thanks to correctional officers.
Churches can assist prisoners in different ways – from hiring released prisoners to dedicating an Angel Tree to families of incarcerated individuals. Some volunteers help tutor for the GED program, while others concentrate on helping released prisoners.
“Every church has its niche,” Waedemon said. “There are endless possibilities.”
Christ Church also works with women who are part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (BAMBI), which provides an opportunity for mother and child bonding and attachment in a safe environment.
Waedemon encourages anyone interested in volunteering to take the required training with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, now available online. For churches considering starting a restorative justice ministry, she is available to help.
“This ministry has reenergized our church,” Waedemon said. In fact, the Restorative Justice Sunday ranks in the top three services for attendance. This year, 130 people stayed for lunch afterwards.
Waedemon believes that other churches would benefit from the ministry as well. Volunteers are blessed from participating, she added. Their faith is strengthened as they witness God’s love in action.
Every semester, Waedemon said, the men want to know why the volunteers have come into the prison. She tells them, “Let’s get this straight. No one is paying us to be here. We aren’t building crowns in heaven. We are here just because we love you. Jesus loves you and told us to be here. It’s just as simple as that.”