I have had the distinct pleasure and honor these past two years of visiting the Coffield prison in Tenessee Colony, Texas. I’ll never forget the first time I went. An inmate named Mickie thought he’d play a joke on the “new guy” and start to tell me about his dream he had been having about eating chickens. He made it out to be some demonic dream and then at the pinnacle of the joke he blew some white feathers he had in his hand. His intent was to try to scare me – maybe to see what I am made out of. I was a bit taken back, but what he did not know is that I am a high school assistant principal whose ability to be scared of most anything has been very much squashed, although that one was close! We all got a good laugh out of it. Mickie, as it turns out is a very Godly man, and a humble servant of Jesus. He is an elder of the church there at Coffield. Truly a blessing, and I am honored to call him a friend. While I am still looking for an opportunity to “return his favor,” I am limited as to what will pass through the search upon entering the prison.
When I was done speaking that day, a special group of men stayed behind and invited me to join them. This was a group of approximately 6-8 men who call themselves the “Streetsweepers.” They are a group of devoted Christ-followers who desire to work with the youth of our nation to try to turn back those who are wayward. They each have written their testimonies, and live a life in prison that would make many free people look less than upstanding – including me! They have daily quiet times, go to their prison jobs and work with excellence, share Christ in a loving way, disciple new followers, and help new inmates get adjusted. They are truly broken, humbled, and Christlike men. Why did they want to talk to me? They found out, after my introduction to the 600 men or so at the Chapel service, that I was a high school assistant principal, and they wanted my help in getting the gospel of Jesus out through their testimonies. I got really excited. Their leader was a man named Robert Garland. He was also the leader of the elders, and the leader of the church there at Coffield. At the age of 41 he had spent 24 years of his life behind bars. But in talking to him, you would think you were talking to a professional, high ranking business man. His demeanor was calm and mature, but valued you as a person. When he spoke in the Chapel to get the men quiet, they listened. Tall and lanky, this man had the makings of a great leader and communicator. I grew close to Robert. He recently made parole after 24 years in prison, which means that he will be released in a few months – probably December. I rejoiced that he will finally be able to live out Jesus to the world. He already has several speaking engagements lined up across the US to share his testimony in schools and churches.
James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say,”If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
Robert actually mailed me his brochure he had developed for the Streetsweepers in the hopes that my technology skills could make it shine. It has well-crafted testimonies and artwork by the prisoners. Very nice indeed! I told him I would work on it. The picture above is a part of his Streetsweeper work – drawn by one of our brothers in Jesus. I went again to visit Coffield this past Friday. Robert Garland died on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 – three weeks prior to my seeing him again. He was two months away from freedom – after 24 years of prison. Yet he is freer and richer now than anybody on this planet. His Lord and Maker gave him an even higher parole. God invited Robert to His house for dinner – Word has it they were throwing a big feast. Robert had made plans to do such and such – like we all do. He stood up one day, had a brain aneurism, and fell over – dead. Life truly is a vapor. He had just led a white supremist gang member – for security reasons I will call him Vinny – to the Lord, and had been discipling him these past few months. I had the pleasure of meeting this man and hearing his testimony last week – Jesus has truly transformed his anger into joy and peace. He is going to take Robert’s place, Lord willing. This once very angry man had tears in his eyes when he spoke of Robert and the work Robert did in the lives of the men in that prison.
Today, we remember Robert Garland, and all prisoners who know Jesus and are marked by His blood, mercy and grace. Robert had no immediate family – his parents died when he was a child, so he never had visitors in prison except those who knew his ministry and who came to see him from churches. Because he had no money and no family, his body was buried in the Huntsville Prison Cemetary – but it is just an empty shell of a body. Robert is currently at the feet of his Lord and Savior Jesus, celebrating with all of his heart. Poor and rejected by this world’s standards, he was truly rich in Jesus and stored up major treasure in heaven.
The closing of his last letter to me:
Hebrews 13:1-3, Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
I challenge those who read this today to become a pen pal with a prisoner. Maybe even go visit one or two on a regular basis – whatever regular means to you. Perhaps every other month. There are state and federal prisons, county jails and city jails. There are men and women behind bars, and all of them need a mentor or at least a real friend who will walk the distance with them. They don’t need a judge, they have already seen one! They don’t need condemnation, they are already in the middle of it! They need the grace and mercy of Jesus and hope that there is a better life. That is what Jesus does for us – we who are prisoners to our own addictions, worries, struggles, sins, and besetting life patterns – he walks beside us as a friend helping and empowering those who are willing to change their lives, giving us the Hope of a better life coming.
This is a link to a movie night our church gave to the men complete with bags of popcorn. They absolutely loved it! (yes, each man in this chapel signed a release for them to be photographed – it took over 2 hours to get them all signed in so they could take their seats!) Be blessed!
Matthew 25:34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’