Beilue: Planting seeds to bear fruit many won’t see

With a new chapel, Neal Unit inmates will no longer have to use the gym for its worship services. (Provided photo)

It’s a chapel, a 9,500-square foot chapel, that few will ever see the inside, much less the outside. In fact, for most who do see the inside, something went wrong in their lives.

 

They broke the law, committed a felony, are serving time. Those are the ones who will comprise this congregation one day soon, the least of these.

“We want to make a difference in men’s lives,” Bob Manning said. “We want to rebuild broken lives. We want them to realize they’ve lived life their way. Now, why don’t you look at it from another perspective, and look at it from God’s way?”

Well, there’s no chapel there yet, not on some vacant ground on the north end of the Neal Unit, one of two state prisons northeast of the city. Oh, there’s a couple of symbolic shovels of dirt unearthed two weeks ago, but this 400-seat chapel with three classrooms, two offices and a kitchen will be completed within a year.

For 99 percent of the Panhandle — if not more — this chapel will be invisible. It’s not like they will visit or even notice. So why should the public care?

Well, you could listen to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, when he said the Father would bless those who saw those who were in prison — “when I was in prison you visited me.” For as Jesus said, you do it to the least of these, you do so to me.

Or you could listen to words of Lynn Funk. He was one of three men at the groundbreaking ceremony, set apart by their dress of white fatigues and a standard issue green coat to guard against some unseasonably cold weather.

“Ever since I came here, God has been moving on this unit,” said Funk, who has been housed at Neal for 11 years. “We’ve always dreamed about having this kind of facility. Now this dream is a reality.

“There is hope and excitement of what is going on here. It brings an opportunity to grow spiritually. It creates an atmosphere of fellowship. It creates a holy place for that use, and that use only. It’s a permanency, if you will.”

Chapels are not the standard part of a Texas Department of Criminal Justice unit, of which there are 108 in the state that house nearly 142,000 men and women, “offenders” in TDCJ vocabulary. Any chapels are built from private funds.

For the 1,700 at the Neal Unit, they meet usually in the gym, where about 325 metal chairs can be made into a makeshift church service. Sometimes, smaller groups meet in classrooms.

“We’ve always thought we were leaving some men behind,” Manning said. “In fact, we knew we were.”

It was on May 18, 2016, that Manning and Larry Miles, who heads the prison ministry at Trinity Fellowship Church, went to a chapel dedication at the Formby Unit in Plainview. It was a smaller facility that seated 125.

“I asked Larry coming back why we didn’t have one at Neal, and he said no one had come forward to raise money to build one,” Manning said. “I opened my mouth and inserted my foot and said I wanted to see if we could get it raised.”

They had only one chance to do this right. Based on Neal’s population, it needed to seat 400, and some classrooms needed to go with it. A cool $1 million needed to be raised.

Manning was named president of Panhandle NUC, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. Within three weeks, they had a $100,000 commitment from High Plains Christian Ministries Foundation. It was like waving the green flag. The race was on.

“As Larry Miles said at our first board meeting, ‘If this is God’s baby, He’s going to kiss it,’ and He kissed it over and over and over,” Manning said.

Neal’s chapel is modeled after a 250-seat Jordan Unit in Pampa. It took about five years to raise nearly $1 million for that building. By May 15 of this year — three days shy of one year that Manning and Miles got the idea — a total of $1 million had been raised. Actually, $1,015,000 has been raised. Kissed indeed.

For most who gave, it was like planting seeds for a tree that many won’t see to bear fruit many won’t know. Construction could begin by the end of October with completion by next summer. Already, attention is turning toward a similar one next door at the larger Clements Unit.

For most at Neal, they will be released sooner than later. So the question is, what kind of man does society want back?

“Spiritual growth in prison has a positive impact, not just offender to offender, but offender to guard,” said Tom Foran, First Baptist Church’s business administrator and leader of its prison ministry for the last eight years. “When a man is released, nearly all leave a different individual than when they come in.”

Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at jon.beilue@amarillo.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.

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