Unique ministry in a Texas prison: What can the Reformed churches do to help?

JJ and Aunt LouiseBrothers Praying for Others is a group of 52 Reformed Christian men who worship together on Sundays and meet daily for Bible study and prayer. And they do this in a maximum security prison in Texas.

“The Brothers Praying for Others have sacrificed to be a part of this ministry in prison,” says David Troup, a member of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Kansas City, who supervises the group’s leader, James Johnson (JJ). “They have crossed the line to become the weird group of men who bring their Bibles for daily prayer and study in the prison yard. This is more of a sacrifice than most of us have had to make.”

According to David, JJ finds new members for the group, encouraging men to seek the Lord and join the fellowship. He leads daily Bible study and prayer in the prison yard and leads the group in worship that includes reading a sermon after the regular Sunday chapel service. He admonishes men who may desire revenge, urging them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. He also makes sure that illiterate men receive writing paper and pens to pursue their GED and enroll in Crossroad Bible Institute lessons so that they may grow in their faith. With the assistance of Covenant’s deacons, JJ ensures that men who lack financial resources can obtain basic essentials such as toothpaste. JJ has identified individuals on other pods to act as virtual elders and deacons to watch over the spiritual welfare and physical needs of the men on those units.

David says, “The Covenant Reformed Church of Kansas City would value any wisdom in how to encourage the Brothers Praying for Others beyond what we are already doing,”

The history of the Brothers Praying for Others group goes back over 20 years, following JJ’s incarceration in 1990. Soon after that, David’s aunt, Louise Troup, began corresponding with JJ through Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship program.

Having no family or friends who cared about him, JJ was so astonished to receive her initial letter that he believed it was a cruel joke. He thought the guard was tormenting him and would come back to take the letter away. At first, JJ couldn’t even read or write; he depended on his cell mate to read Louise’s letters to him and write his response to her.

“But Aunt Louise never failed him,” writes David Troup, a member of Covenant Reformed Church in Kansas City. “She continued to write to him, sending him letters and postcards from where ever she was traveling. I believe JJ learned about God’s faithfulness through all those years of correspondence.”

When Louise reached her mid-80s several years ago, she asked David, who has been a Crossroad Bible Institute (CBI) instructor for years, if he would write to JJ.

“Her concern was that she would die, leaving him with nobody in this life,” explains David. “It would have been true as he had no one else, no friends or family.”

In his correspondence, David questioned JJ about his family, his situation, and his beliefs. He sent him a Reformation Study Bible, got him enrolled in CBI courses, and began sending him printed sermons and sections of the Heidelberg Catechism.

“JJ gobbled up everything that I sent his way,” David says. “During this time, he professed his faith and was baptized in prison. Our family quickly fell in love with him and started visiting him over Memorial Day of 2006.”

The Troups asked Rev. Brack of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Amarillo, TX, to visit JJ. Soon that entire congregation developed a close relationship with him. Two elders visited JJ each week. This was a huge encouragement to JJ, but also the beginning of the church’s prison ministry, which now consists of a volunteer chaplain for each of the several buildings at the Clements prison unit.

Unfortunately, that ministry is no longer able to minister to JJ. David relates, “Earlier this year, Christ Covenant ran afoul of a rule that no chaplain can have a ‘friend’ that is a prisoner in the Clements unit. In order not to lose the chaplains from Christ Covenant OPC, the prison system moved JJ to the Allred unit, a hundred miles away. It almost seemed like the world came to an end for JJ, but he maintained his trust in God’s providence.”

David and his wife, Patricia, visited JJ in his new prison, where they discovered he had organized a group of men to meet regularly with him for prayer and Bible study. Rev. Brack and Rev. Harold Miller (Covenant URCNA) regularly send him printed copies of sermons.

Following JJ’s move away from the Christ Covenant OPC, the consistory of Covenant Reformed Church in Kansas City discussed the matter of JJ’s church membership. After he had satisfactorily answered over 50 questions from the church elders, the consistory voted to accept JJ into membership at Covenant Reformed Church.

David sent sent JJ a postcard notifying him of the vote. “He said his hands shook while reading the card and tears streamed down his face. In addition to his wonderful profession of faith, our consistory will continue its oversight through my regular visits to him in prison.”

David’s aunt Louise, who had corresponded with JJ for more than 20 years, went with David to visit JJ in September of 2012.

“This was their first time of meeting face to face, albeit through glass,” explains David. “Aunt Louise said that after a while she didn’t notice the glass.”

Covenant’s elders struggle to answer this question: Is there more that should be done and what would that be, given the restrictions of prison life?

“The Brothers Praying for Others group looks like a church, acts like a church, and ‘walks’ like a church,” says David. “Currently the warden tolerates this fellowship, but could shut it down in an instant.”

“This isn’t just about a particular group of men led by an incredibly gifted man, through the works of the Spirit and under the oversight (as much as possible) by our consistory,” he adds. “Charles Colson believed that the next ‘great awakening’ would come from the prisons. If that would be the case, what should Reformed churches be doing about it?”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-7 of the January 16, 2013, issue of Christian RenewalPlease feel free to link to this site and share the word.

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