Saturday, March 21, 2015

This used to be where Satan lives. He's moved out.

Brazoria County, Texas, subtly expands from the barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico to gently kiss Pearland, TX, which was recently defined in the news as "the most boring city in America."  The citizens of the county include bikers and bosses, refinery workers and the refined elite.  Pickups pass Porsches as often as Buc-ee's makes a buck.  The proud Texans that call Brazoria County home would tell you they do indeed lead a boring life.  And boring is good.  It's a good life.  If you've seen a BMW 750Li blow past a combine, you know you're home.  I've spent the better part of three decades in and around this iconic county, which includes the birthplace of Texas and the ruins of a couple of dozen sugar cane and cotton plantations.  If you drive Farm-to-Market Road 521 north, you'll cross Highway 288 and then settle into a pleasant drive through ranches and subdivisions, dusty cantinas and convenience stores, flea markets and farmer's markets.  Trouble meets boredom soon enough, however, as this road is dotted with several prisons, the most well-known being the Darrington Unit.

One man, after spending several years in and around Darrington remarked, "This is where Satan lives."  At Darrington in years past, contraband flowed like cheap booze in a juke joint.  Gangs dominated the landscape, separated by ethnicity, united by violence, death, and sexual assault.  God was pushed to the side like an unwelcome bystander, observing chaos and hate and rape and murder with hardly an objection.  Drugs and booze were available...but only for a price.  A steep price.  I can't say that everything has changed, but I know change has come.  From within.

I've known men and women who've volunteered at Darrington over the years with different organizations. Upon their return, they gave reports of salvations and commitments to Christ, but all-in-all, darkness prevailed.

What's changed?  The men of Darrington have taken the reins from the volunteers, and rightfully so. In 2011, a theological seminary took roots at Darrington thanks to a local foundation and a Baptist Seminary up the road in Ft. Worth.   A couple of hundred men from the unit attend daily classes, study diligently, write papers, take tests, and most importantly...begin to change the culture and the lives of the men they're around. Upon completion, they minister at Darrington, or accept assignments

Seminary students at the Darrington Unit, Texas Department of Corrections
at other prisons around the state of Texas.  Once there, they walk through solitary confinement (administrative segregation, in prison-speak), through the cell blocks where prisoners rarely leave their cells, and breathe the words of life into the dank quarters these men call home.

Darrington is where I went today. I've never spent a day in a prison, other than through volunteer efforts, but when I enter the cold, steel gates I am eager with the anticipation of hearing the stories of these men.  Because they are true stories of redemption.  Let me share just a couple with you.

Chavez (I never caught his first name), is a former Hispanic gang member with nineteen of his thirty-six years spent in the Texas prison system.  He's smoother than a river rock, and his many talents made him a leader in contraband distribution.  A businessman of circumstance, he bought and sold drugs, booze, cell phones, weapons, and whatever else was smuggled into the unit on a given day.  A gifted artist, he provided tattoos for all his fellow gang members. I got the feeling he could call a Chevy Citation a Rolls Royce and sell it to me for the price of the latter.  The crafty con courted a local girl on a contraband cell phone, got married, and looked forward to the day he would be out of prison and into wedded bliss.  Christ interrupted his plans four years ago.  The man of many talents began to use them all for Christ.  He told his wife on the outside about his change on the inside, and she trusted Christ too. "I can't wait to get out and see my family.  They'll all come to Christ before I'm done," he told me.  I have no doubts he'll be successful.  In the meantime, Chavez is sharing Christ left and right, his magnetic personality attracting all races to the Lord.  

Stanley is a man with a conviction also.  Not only the criminal type, but one for the Lord as well. Quiet and almost bashful, he loves people not so much with eloquence but persistence.  He's not scheduled to be released for a decade, so he's walking the passages at Darrington, quoting scriptures, praying, and holding hands with the men without hope.  We were born in the same year and share a military background.  "I shoulda stayed in the Army," he told me.  "I got into trouble when I got out, and here I am today.  I'm a product of my own choices."  Stanley is a man without hope, who then gained hope, and now gives hope in Jesus Christ.  It was a privilege to meet him as well.

I volunteered at Darrington with CHARM ministries, which is an acronym for Christ's Hope and Reconciliation Ministries. It was founded by Dave Trickett, a human dynamo, who will not rest until every prisoner in Texas has the hope of Christ in his heart.  Our role is a little basketball, eat a meal, and worship with prisoners.  I can't do much more than encourage.  I don't know their pain, I haven't lived their life.  But I do know this...Christ set me free from a life of sin and death in exactly the same way he's freed many men inside Darrington.  Although we're different in background, lifestyle, and appearance, we're the same to Christ.  He loves us with an everlasting love.

I'm proud to join a bunch of suburban guys going in to prison to love a bunch of inner city guys who made mistakes but who now understand redemption as only Christ can explain.  I love these guys.  I can't explain it, which means that it must be Christ within me.  I can't wait to go back to see the work they've done to bring the love of Christ to the lost and the hopeless.  Which reminds me once again...I'm wrong.  There is always hope, and no one is permanently lost.  Jesus saves.