Deep in the heart of Texas, in that space between Dallas and Houston where there are only highways and flat lands, is the Coffield Unit, a maximum security prison. It’s home to some 4,000 of the worst criminals in the state, from men convicted of killing multiple people to men convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child.
It’s hot and it’s scary. One inmate describes Coffield as having roaches, spiders and bugs crawling all over him every night, while others go into graphic detail about the riots and abuse. There’s no air conditioning, even when Texas temperatures reach 120 degrees.
The worst part — if there is a worst part — is that most of the inmates are there for life sentences. There is no going home.
Going Where the Bad Guys Are
That’s the harsh reality that hit the members of Gateway Church when they started visiting the prison.
Pastor Robert Morris, leader of the 30,000-member congregation, announced in January 2019 that Gateway had a new campus — an unexpected one. Coffield.
“Many of the men and women inside prison have been forgotten by society, but we want them to know we love them and God loves them, and they are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Morris said in an interview.
“We’re all about people because God is all about people,” is the church motto, according to the church’s website.
Still, there are a lot of great Christians who love people but wouldn’t step foot in a prison in the state with the most number of executions in the country.
Gateway Church’s Coffield campus opened in November 2018 and in a lot of ways, the Coffield location operates the same way as the nine other non-prison ones. The inmates hold regular church volunteer jobs — greeting, media, ushers, video production and ministering to each other.
Even the worship team is made up of prisoners. We’re not talking about a small, five-person band either. The Coffield Prison Unit worship team is made up of 30 or so white-clad prisoners standing at the front of the service. You can watch them sing here.
Stephen Wilson, an ex-convict who goes to Gateway Church serves as the Coffield campus pastor. He’s joined by a small team of trained volunteers who make the 90-minute drive from Dallas to Tennessee Colony, Texas, where Coffield is located.
Rival Gangs, Same God
It’s this next part, the incredible event that happened at Coffield recently, that will send your head spinning. If you’ve spent any time in Texas, especially the Houston area, you’ll know that gang violence is a real danger. There’s an estimated 100,000 gang members working in Texas, and they do not like each other.
“Members are usually very loyal to the point where they are willing to do almost anything for their group, including die or commit murder,” according to one Stanford University study.
The Mexican drug cartels are also creeping into the state now, with an added stress for turf and money. Imprisoning a bunch of men from a bunch of different groups that all hate each other, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Or God gets involved and it’s a recipe for a miracle.
After a few months of going to Gateway Church’s services, five prisoners decided it was time to be baptized. All five came from different gangs or cartels. All five were convicted of violent crimes. All five were in solitary confinement, hidden away behind steel doors because they were too dangerous to be with other prisoners.
“I have tried it my way my whole life and it’s gotten me here,” one prisoner said. “I want to try it God’s way. … We’re going to come out of the water as new men.”
When they walked into the baptistry, they had guards on either side of them and shackles on their hands and feet. Jesus might be giving them freedom that day, but the Texas Department of Justice sure wasn’t.
“These guys from two different gangs professed the same Lord and were baptized in the same water together, and they walked out together, guards not holding onto their arms anymore because God had done something in their life,” Niles Holsinger, a pastor at Gateway’s Coffield campus said.
They all decided to follow Jesus. Their sins were forgiven, and they were baptized.
That’s not the end, though. Another 14 prisoners have decided to get baptized in July. After that, who knows?
By the world’s standards, these are some bad dudes. By God’s standards, we’re all sinners. And we can all be forgiven.