Monday, April 11, 2005
“We teach them to walk by the Holy Spirit, not prison guards.”
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting a confab this Tuesday, April 12, titled “Looking Beyond Prison Walls”. The purpose is to “discuss the landmark shift in the state's criminal justice policy as lawmakers have begun rejecting the construction of costly new prisons in favor of greater reliance on other strategies.” For this discussion, I respectfully submit the compelling story and renewal ministry of Texas Reach Out Ministries.
===============================================================Visage of the Dark Forerunner
“The Lord turned my life right side up”, said David Pena, an ordained minister and steward of Texas Reach Out Ministries.
In the mid 1980’s, Pena was in prison and becoming ensnared in the prison culture of drug use, violent turf fighting, and self-reliant bravado. Having discovered an ability to distill booze for the jailhouse economy, Pena was eventually confronted by rival inmates trying to horn in on his black market niche. Words were exchanged, threats issued, boasts made. Faced with the potential loss of respect and power, Pena planned revenge by murder.
Three days before settling the score, Pena met an unexpected messenger.
Waiting in the infirmary, he saw 6 prison guards carrying in sick, elderly inmate from solitary confinement. In since 1964, this man was Hispanic (like Pena), covered in tattoos (Pena already had one or two), was in solitary confinement for committing murder while in prison (which Pena was laying plans to do), and parroting the profane, prideful smack talk common in the machismo prison culture (Pena was getting good at it himself). The man was a living phantom foretelling the consequences of dissolute living, a perverse ghost of prison life yet to come
The effect was immediate.
“In that man,” recalls Pena, “I saw myself talking back to me. The devil robbed that man of his life.”
Returning to his cell, Pena fell to his knees. While not particularly religious before, Pena pleaded with God…..if You are for real, change me and I will follow where you lead!
Getting out in 1987, Pena has been clean and sober for 18 years. Following God’s lead, he’s earned degrees at Austin Community College and Texas State and became a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor. In 2000, he first got his vision for Texas Reach Out Ministries.The Wheatfield Vision
In 2000, Pena was working for the Austin Recovery Center, first as a counselor, then director. One day while driving around town, Pena reports seeing a vision of wheat fields, a biblical image signifying a spiritual harvest, and a mental slideshow showing small groups of ex-offenders living in 18 home-based recovery communities.
From this image and many divine appointments, Texas Reach Out Ministries was born.
The ministry consists of:
- Incoming screening: Texas Reach Out Ministries uses a standard form to capture each potential resident’s demographic information, history, habits, and spiritual state. Reach Out Ministries serves only those men and women who have made a serious commitment to change their life course and a conscious decision for Christ.
- Housing: Pena engages community churches to get involved working along side with the residents renovating the homes Texas Reach Out Ministries buys. Each home houses up to 7 residents.
- An atmosphere for spiritual growth
- Integration into local church for accountability: All residents are required to attend a church of their choice weekly.
- Duration: residents may participate in the ministry program up-to-two years, depending on their needs and goals
- Employment assistance: Texas Reach Out Ministries actively seek employers to hire residents, giving them the means for a future of self-sufficiency.
- Contribution: Upon finding a job, residents are expected to pay $75/week for rent and $25/week for food.
“We teach them to walk by the Holy Spirit, not prison guards,” Pena said.On March 31, 2005 Texas Reach Out Ministries closed on its 6th house. Of Church and State
Recidivism in Texas is measured over a three-year timeframe from release. Pena reports that a team from Texas State University is developing a study to identify an apples-to-apples recidivism comparison with Texas Reach Out Ministries. However, Pena also said that they have done some preliminary tracking of former residents to test the re-integration success rate 6 months after leaving, with “success” being defined as
- Moving into a stable housing situation
- Have full time work
- Not using drugs or abusing alcohol
- No re-offenses
By these parameters, Texas Reach Out Ministries is 70-75% successful.While it is still early in the game, wouldn’t the government be interested in somehow replicating this model? For that matter, wouldn’t Texas Reach Out Ministries be interested in getting government funding to extend their reach?
“We don’t want to get in bed with the government,” said Pena, or else it might water down the power of the Gospel, the story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the key point of any faith-based, ex-offender ministry. The government’s temptation with programs of this type will be to engage them to get the results but lay restrictions on them because they might be – gasp! – religious. Upon hearing this word, the bureaucratic apparatus is pre-programmed to robotically repeat the phrase “separation of church and state” and use all sorts of sly machinations to remove any true spiritual activity behind the religious words, leaving an institutionalized form of godliness but denying its power.
Yet, this humanist tendency will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The spiritual renewal of the individual is the whole life and structure of Texas Reach Out Ministries and other programs of its type. Mentoring, accountability, scriptural instruction, job placement training, all bound together in the spiritual relationship to God through Jesus Christ, have in them a recuperative power that reforms the person from within. This renewal, though, requires spiritual discipleship. Thus, the state simply cannot minister to the whole person in the same way.
The state can, and should, punish. But it cannot restore, because it is unable. That is the bailiwick of the community and church (“church” here meaning the body of believers, not a particular denomination).
Therefore, here are some principles I propose should be included in the corrections reform discussion:
- Promote: Elected officials and other thought leaders should be a cheerleaders for these programs
- Consider tax incentives for employers who participate in job placement for these types of ministries
- Avoid directly subsidizing these ministries (see the part about killing the goose that lays the golden egg above)
- Pursue true ministry to the whole person
- Do not be afraid. Critics may weep and wail over disingenuous “separation of church and state” concerns. They operate from an obsolete and discredited worldview that sees the government as the means to godliness. They are of the past and miss the compassion of the spiritual restoration approach.
(Author’s postscript: I am aware that there are other, home-based aftercare programs similar to Texas Reach Out ministries that have no or different spiritual content. While I do not specifically address them here, I hold that they should be included in any discussion about corrections reform in Texas as they help prove the home-based, mentorship/accountability/job training model.)
Links to this post: