Going to prison to be a beacon of light
By Lindsay Peyton
In the past 17 years, Jim Cooper and Dr. William Fach’s prison ministry has never skipped a beat. The two members of Faithbridge Church in Spring have traveled together multiple days a week, about 150 miles round trip each time, to offer Bible study, worship, Baptism and communion to inmates. When COVID-19 closed prison doors for a year, the ministry was on hold. Finally, Cooper and Fach have been invited to return — in a limited capacity.
Their visits won’t be the same. For instance, their two-hour sessions have been cut in half, and they now can plan one trip per week instead of four.
Still, the duo is looking forward to restarting their prison ministry. “I can’t wait to go back,” Cooper said. “We don’t like sitting on the bench.”
“We want to get back in the game,” Fach added. “We were made for what we’re doing. We’re pretty fired up.”
At first, both men were reluctant to enter prison ministry. Now, they can’t imagine their lives without it.
Cooper was recruited to serve by his father Neil, who was involved in a Dallas-based ministry founded by Bill Glass, a football player who turned prison evangelist.
“Dad was always telling me about prison ministry,” Cooper recalled. “He would say, ‘You need to get involved,’ but my answer was always, ‘No. That’s not what I’m interested in.’”
Eventually, in 1997, his father dragged him to an event in the Houston area. Cooper was assigned to visit the Harris County Jail downtown. He clearly remembers riding up the elevator to the 9th floor, where sexual predators were serving time.
Cooper said a prayer, “I don’t know what I’d doing or how to do it, but I’m here. Lord, you have to help me.”
Right as the words came out of his mouth, a prisoner approached. “Ever since that day, I’ve been in prison ministry,” he said. “Dad got me pretty sold on it.”
Cooper eventually recruited Fach. The two met when Cooper enrolled in Fach’s Bible study class at Champion Forest Baptist Church in 2002.
“Jim started talking to me about this prison ministry,” Fach recalled. “He kept trying to get me to go.”
But Fach resisted until 2004, when he finally agreed to go to a Bill Glass event in Houston. “I’d never been in a jail or prison my whole life,” he said.
Fach drove 75 miles to the Wayne Scott Unit in Lake Jackson to serve for the weekend. He was hesitant until the end. “Only 15 minutes were left,” he said.
Fach assumed afterwards he would never go back. Then, a man sat down beside him and asked to hear about Jesus. “My perspective took a 180-degree turn,” Fach said. “My preconceptions about prisoners were just completely blown away. It’s helped me grow personally.”
He is grateful that Cooper pushed him. “Here’s a guy who gave me an opportunity, who encouraged me,” he said. “It wasn’t where I wanted to go. I praise the Lord that he was persistent.”
The prison chaplain asked if Fach would consider coming back to teach Bible studies. He asked Cooper to join, and then two more volunteers from church signed up. That’s how their own ministry was born.
“We thought we’d take turns going,” Fach said. “But it turns out, most of the time, all of us went. And from August 2004 until COVID, we were there without fail.”
The original team of four grew to six volunteers, who would go between 150 to 200 times a year. They served the Ramsey Unit, as well as the original Wayne Scott Unit.
“We just teach the word. We get the Bible and go through it verse by verse,” Fach said.
The first Bible study, he and Cooper were unsure how many prisoners would attend, preparing for maybe 10 or so to show up. Instead, 40 men came. That number eventually grew to 100 or more. For special programs, like Christmas worship, 300 prisoners have gathered.
“The Lord has done his work in the prison,” Fach said. “There are some of those guys who really know the word. They have chosen to study the Bible and let God change them. We have seen more genuine Christians behind the prison walls; it’s a humbling experience. It makes you want to come back.”
Cooper said prison ministry is rewarding. “I know we make a difference,” he said. “I’ve seen lives changed. There are people here packed away and forgotten by their families, but there is hope – and you can give it to them.”
In the past year, however, Cooper and Fach felt like hope went on hold. “COVID took a huge toll on prisoners,” Fach said. “We were completely shut out. All volunteers were curtailed.”
There were COVID deaths in both the prison population and the facility’s employees, Cooper added. He recalled doing Bible study in February 2020. “Then, all of a sudden, the whole system shut down,” he said.
In September, Cooper received a letter from the prison chaplain that the Scott Unit was closing. “All of those guys we’ve known for 17 years, and we didn’t get to say goodbye,” he said. “That’s heartbreaking for us.”
Still, Cooper and Fach are excited to return in any capacity to the units that remain. They are hopeful more opportunities will open up in the future.
In the meantime, Fach said that the past year has been a lesson in patience, in learning to wait for the Lord. He also believes that some of the inmates in their ministry can now spread the message to their new units.
“They’re ministering to folks in the system where they are now,” he said. “We might not see the immediate results of what we do. But we don’t need applause. We just know that we’re doing what we should, and we’re being faithful.”
In prison ministry, Cooper added, the results aren’t always obvious and often take time. “The hard thing is to go plant, fertilize, pull weeds but not to always see the crop harvested. We do our job and trust that everything is taken care of.”
A consistent effort is essential, Fach added. “More than anything, you need to be prepared to show up and be there,” he said. “There are never times that we just didn’t show up. It’s a big commitment. Those guys count on you being there. And faithfulness is something that we’re here to model.”
In addition to dedication, love is key. Cooper makes it a point to hug each prisoner when they walk into Bible study. “We care a lot,” he said.
Seeing the inmates grow spiritually has been gratifying. “These are folks who have been rejected by society,” Fach said. “They can’t come to us. We have to go to them.”
He explained that sometimes, ministry can be reduced to numbers, like counting how many have come to Jesus or been Baptized. “It’s score keeping, and we don’t need to keep score,” he said. “It’s not what we’re about. We have to trust in what we’re teaching.”
Through the years, God continues to lead the prison ministry forward, Fach explained. “He has not told us to back off, and there haven’t been any speed bumps, other than COVID,” he said. “There have never been any stop signs. Something, without fail, will always confirm what we’re doing.”
Sometimes, individuals suggest that prison ministry has been a sacrifice, Fach said. He often replies, “Are you kidding? We get to do this. It’s not a burden. It’s not a chore. We have been given an opportunity that matters to people – and I think it matters to God as well.”
Cooper said that prison ministry has been eye-opening for him – and he invites others to join the journey.
“I get an opportunity to work on something that will make a difference in someone’s life,” he said. “If you listen to the Lord, He’ll take you to places you’d never thought you’d go to do things you never thought you could.”
Cooper and Fach at Faithbridge Church welcome emails from individuals interested in joining their prison ministry or learning more about starting their own at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.