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Aug 29, 2011 | Jim Goodson

Brotherhood Speakers Challenge Texas Prison Inmates

Prison Ministry
167 inmates gather for annual summer retreat
Oliver Osborne 2
Oliver Osborne, founder of the prison ministry

167 inmates at a prison near Angleton, Texas comprise The Episcopal Church’s largest inmate ministry.


The Brotherhood of St. Andrew has been spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ at the Wayne Scott Unit since 1985. The inmate brothers also comprise the nation’s largest Brotherhood chapter. (Kairos prison ministries limit class sizes to 42 inmates).  


The Brotherhood’s annual summer retreat was held Aug. 5-6, 2011 at the prison, 30 miles southeast of Houston. The theme was: Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?


“After all these years, I’m realizing that I’ve been part of God’s plan – not mine – to put together this ministry in this prison,” said Oliver Osborne, a longtime St. Timothy’s parishioner and Brotherhood prison ministry founder.


The format keeps things moving. The volunteer Seven Member Band plays Christian music and everybody sings before a speaker addresses a topic and poses two questions for discussion. Then, inmates break for snacks and come back to address the questions.


Sitting in groups of eight, the inmates talk about how to answer the two questions posed by the previous speaker. Then a representative from each group summarizes his group’s answers before the entire membership before the band sings, and everyone does it again.


“It’s designed to make [the inmates] feel comfortable and to get them talking and thinking about big issues,” retreat director Dickson de la Haye said.


Inmate life is rarely so comfortable. The Wayne Scott Unit was in lockdown when the annual Brotherhood retreat was held during the hot, dry Texas summer. Chaplain Curtis E. Robinson and prison warden Warner Lumpkin chose to lift the lockdown so the retreat could be held.


Seven speakers volunteered for the 2011 event. They included recently-retired Bishop Rayford High, former suffragan bishop for the Diocese of Texas, and the Rev. Andy Parker, rector of St. Timothy’s, Lake Jackson.


Non-clergy speakers were former Episcopal Church Army director Steve Brightwell; Central Texas prison ministry brother Jerry Bailey, who organized a similar chapter near Venus, Texas; street-person-turned-Christian speaker Sheri Robinson; Alvin, Texas Pentecostal preacher Claude Sumrall and Brother Steve Vaughn, whose father was a Baptist preacher.  


Inmates respond to prayer talk


“We get depressed when we fail at things, including prayer,” Vaughn said. “We start questioning ourselves – and questioning God, too.”


Vaughn said the average person makes about 250 decisions per day. Prison inmates, because so much has been taken from them, make only about 50 decisions per day.


“So it will be overwhelming when you are re-introduced to society if you have not fine-tuned your decision-making ability with your prayer life,” he told the inmates.


To Vaughn, prayer is not something you do once or twice per day. It’s an on-going conversation with God that is reflected in every decision you make. The more you accomplish this prayer technique, the easier it gets to “hear God guiding you” through your day, Vaughn said.


Vaughn, who plays in the Brotherhood band, offered an analogy about his guitar.


“If I haven’t played in a while, there will be a period of time when I’ll have to re-learn things,” Vaughn said. “My skills won’t be as fine-tuned as they could be. And it’s the same with prayer. God wants us to be fine-tuned instruments. He wants to keep His hands continually on us.


“To really have a meaningful prayer life, you must be in perpetual prayer.”


Sermon on the Mount quandaries


The Rev. Andy Parker presided over a hand-washing communion service that offered the celebrant a chance to talk about baptism. 


“In baptism, we are united with Jesus in death and rebirth,” Parker said. “Baptism makes us more like Jesus. It is the first step on the long road to the full stature of Christ.


Parker talked about many of the new laws Jesus introduced in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7). “These news laws, such as turning the other cheek to someone who strikes us, can be frustrating – and even dangerous when we try to put them into practice.


Parker reminded the retreat attendees that Jesus also told Paul that He came to do away with laws as the litmus test for holiness.


“To succeed in keeping the law, you must aim at something other and something more,” Parker said. “You must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the laws naturally flow. It is the inner character that must be transformed, and then behavior will naturally follow…Jesus doesn’t so much call us to do as he did. Rather, Jesus calls us to be as he was.”


A prison in your own mind


A former drug addict told the inmates that they didn’t have to be incarcerated to be living in a prison.


“There is no prison like the prison of the self-driven life,” said Steve Brightwell as the inmates responded with loud “amens.”


Brightwell, a former St. Timothy’s member, is the recipient of a Brotherhood scholarship to Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.


“I was 22 years old and could not get out of bed in the morning,” Brightwell told the inmates. “I couldn’t face up to who I was or wasn’t. I was terrified that if I stopped using drugs, nothing would be there. I was living in a prison of my own deceptions.”


Brightwell began his Christian journey through a set of friends he met after entering treatment for his addictions.


“They were the most open and honest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “All my energies had been used projecting something I wasn’t. They showed me how ridiculous it is when we live a life out of truth.”


Brightwell found his inspiration in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe unto me, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”


Brightwell now works with addicts at a maximum security prison near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is trying to establish a facility to house recently-released inmates.


“I’ve been looking for a house for eight to 10 people,” Brightwell said. “One of the inmates said he was praying for me to find a place for 20 guys. I told him there was no way that would happen and we couldn’t afford it even if we found such a house. Two weeks later someone donated a house for 20 people.”


After the retreat many inmates asked to enter a process that would lead to their baptism.


The annual Brotherhood of St. Andrew retreat at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Wayne Scott Unit – as well as the unit’s ongoing prison ministry – is funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas Brotherhood assembly, the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Burnett, and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Austin.