It was 105 degrees outside as 120 men gathered for a worship service in the gym at the James Lynaugh Unit outside Fort Stockton.
Whether it was the heat that day or the dedication of the new chapel at the Ruben Torres Unit in the Texas city of Hondo in 2019, interest in building a chapel at the Lynaugh unit started. There are only 18 chapels in the 99 state prisons in Texas. All must be privately funded. Chaplain Velia Edwards, at the Lynaugh Unit, began talking to volunteers about the possibility of building a chapel for Lynaugh.
I am one of those Kairos Prison Ministry volunteers and started looking into what the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) required to have a chapel built in a prison. I found out navigating the state’s requirements is not a simple process and compliance with hundreds of pages of building specifications and multiple approvals are required.
Pieces started coming together when Chaplain Edwards met Ryan B. Tinch at a Reconcilers Prison Ministry weekend at the Lynaugh Unit. Tinch is a volunteer with the Reconcilers Ministry and a commercial real estate developer in Dallas. His passion is prison ministry, and his experience is building commercial buildings. Tinch met with TDCJ officials in Huntsville to work through their requirements and received their approval to advance with the project. Another piece fell in place when I contacted T. Drew Cauthorn, an attorney in San Antonio. Cauthor led the funding efforts for the Torres Chapel. He became a valuable advisor and prayer partner for the Lynaugh Chapel team.
The warden at the Lynaugh Unit introduced the team to Pastor Larry Miles at Trinity Fellowship in Amarillo. He had been involved in the funding and construction of three chapels in the Panhandle. Pastor Miles is also on the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. He provides valuable guidance and support. Recently Tim Baum joined the group. He is in the real estate development business and has many years of experience in prison ministry across the country. Together we formed the committee necessary to begin the extensive undertaking known as Prison Chapels.
I have been asked about my experience in prison ministry and why I am involved in this project.
My answer is simple. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 25 that as Christians we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. This is an important project to share the gospel and minister to the incarcerated men at the James Lynaugh Unit. I have been active in prison ministry at the Lynaugh Unit for seven years. A few years ago, I became a Certified Volunteer Chaplain Assistant with the TDCJ. A lot has been learned about life in the process. The men in prison made terrible choices, hurt many people and earned their way into prison. They are lonely men who do not forgive themselves or others and who are taken advantage of in prison if they act weak. At the same time, they are human beings with families and loved ones, just like you and me. Thankfully God never gives up on us. These men need to hear the Good News. For some it will be their first time to learn about Jesus.
Incarceration is also a generational problem. Many incarcerated men grew up in single-parent homes because a parent was incarcerated. Now another family is being raised by a single parent. The chances of those children going to prison are high. It is a repeating cycle. Prison Chapels can host life-skill programs that change the trajectory of individuals’ lives and then generations which follow. The chapel not only serves the current incarcerated, but it carries on to following generations. Many of these men return to our community. This investment not only serves the incarcerated, but it also benefits our own community as the recidivism rate is reduced.
Presently, faith-based and training programs compete for space in the gymnasium at Lynaugh. As a gym basketball, handball and similar events can only be held there. The largest obstacle in offering more programs is the lack of available space. Christian programs are currently rescheduled or eliminated when space is needed for other programs. One of the classes I lead must be held in one of the housing units because there is no other space available. The common areas in housing are not setup for classes and there isn’t the ability to use a projector which is needed for some classes. The best we can do is bring a portable loudspeaker and hope people can hear. We have canceled Kairos events because another group needed the gym. Frequently multiple classes are held in the gym at the same time. I have taught classes in the gym while a Neo Pagan group was meeting at the same time. In April many services were put on hold for Ramadan. A chapel would have allowed Christian programs to continue.
Chaplain David Busby said the new chapel at the Torres Unit is a constant visual reminder of the presence of God. The number of Chaplaincy programs has vastly multiplied. Entering the Chapel is like entering the “Free world,” and Inmates are able to find peace and respite from the “Prison” environment.
Prison Chapels is the non-profit group created to raise funds to build a Worship and Education Center at Lynaugh—a place of peace, safety, and solace for men of every faith and of no faith. The chapel will accommodate 200 people and allow for an exponential increase in the number of prisoners that can be reached and the quality of programs that can be offered. The new chapel will have meeting rooms, a serving kitchen, rest rooms, offices for the chaplain, volunteers, and a library, plus storage space. And it will be available for use seven days a week. It will be a space where sound and music equipment can remain setup. A space where chairs and tables don’t have to be moved for every event.
While building costs are going up, John Cooper IV with Cooper Construction estimated the project cost to be $2.5 million. The Lynaugh Unit is remotely located outside Fort Stockton. The state requires 90 percent of the funds to be raised before we can start construction. Inflation is a concern, and we need to raise the money as quickly as possible. We will be working with the architect and constructor to look for ways to reduce costs. Prison Chapels is looking for financial support from churches, individuals, foundations, and other groups interested in this ministry.
There is a website which has some great testimonies of prisoners and additional information about the chapel project — www.PrisonChapels.org. Prison Chapels is a 501(c)3 Texas corporation formed to raise the funds to build interfaith chapels in Texas. A gift to Prison Chapels is a charitable contribution for federal income tax purposes. (Tax ID 26-3724048). The long-term goal of Prison Chapels is to build more chapels across the state.