< meta name="DC.identifier" content="" > Voice in the Wilderness: “We teach them to walk by the Holy Spirit, not prison guards.” .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Monday, April 11, 2005


“We teach them to walk by the Holy Spirit, not prison guards.”

Texas Reach Out Ministries provides more compassionate model for ex-prisoners

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:

“We are creating a new model that is on the cutting edge of transitional care,” Pena said. Whereas other transitional care models offer mainly just housing, Texas Reach Out Ministries also addresses the whole person to replace the attitudes and behaviors learned in prison, a mindset with which Mr. Pena is very familiar. The objective is to create an environment for spiritual renewal, new ways of thinking, and new behaviors.

“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

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.

Moving Forward

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:

(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.)

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