What is the Welcome Back?
The Welcome Back is a process of meeting with the offender prior to his or her release from prison and connecting them and their families with a church or an authentic faith community in the community they are returning to. Volunteers meet with the offenders prior to their release and share information of support systems (both spiritual and secular) that can aid the ex-offender in his or her transition back into the free world. The offenders fill out contact information (name, address, phone number, etc.) that is collected and emailed through this network to churches and authentic faith communities that are willing to minister to the ex-offender and their family. Ex-offenders are also given a toll-free number to call for information/assistance or be connected with a faith community. Each year, the Welcome Back impacts nearly 50,000 of the 70,000 men and women released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The Welcome Back is implemented for the men being released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice during the evening, Sunday through Thursday, at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
The Welcome Back is implemented for the women being released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice during the morning, Monday through Friday, at the Gatesville Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
The Welcome Back is implemented for both men and women being released from various State Jails of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice once a week. Due to the varying numbers of those being released from the State Jails, all offenders that will be released in the next 7 day period meet to go through this program.
What is First Contact?
First Contact is a ministry of serving the families of offenders as they await the release of their loved from prison. Information and tips assisting the families in the transition of receiving their loved one from prison is given out. Currently, First Contact is implemented at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Nearly 500 families a month from around the country travel to Huntsville in order to pick up their loved one being released from prison. The First Contact Volunteers collect information from these families and forward it to churches and support groups that want to minister to the ex-offender and their family.
A Brief History of the First Contact and Welcome Back Ministries
The origins of the First Contact and Welcome Back ministries can be traced to January 2002 when three men (Rev. Emmett Solomon, Rev. Jim Brazil, and Rev. David Valentine) met together to discuss the possibilities of ministering to the friends and families of those being released from prison who come to Huntsville to pick up their loved one – these families number, on average, about 500 per month. Two goals were established for this ministry: (1) To collect information from the friends and family of the ex-offender being released from the Huntsville (“Walls”) Unit and to forward it to faith communities near the residence of the ex-offender and his family. This will be done in order that these faith communities will be able to minister to the ex-offender and his family, reducing recidivism; (2) To bring awareness to faith communities of the families that are in crisis and are mostly unchurched, living literally in the shadow of their steeples. The information collected from the ex-offender and his friends/family will be e-mailed to faith groups, support groups, and volunteers in the Restorative Justice Ministry Network of North America (RJMN).
By February of 2002, the Director of Community Ministries of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Jim Young, came to Huntsville and met with both Rev. Valentine and Rev. Solomon. As a result of this meeting, Jim Young allocated $5,000 in seed money to help develop this ministry that would come to be known as “First Contact.” This name was chosen because volunteers from First Baptist of Huntsville would be the first people from the free world making contact with friends and families of ex-offenders with the hope of bringing restoration, healing, and stability into their lives, all in the name of Jesus Christ. At the outset, only two major obstacles stood in the way of launching this ministry: (1) Permission was needed from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; and (2) A cadre of volunteers from First Baptist was needed to minister for four hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. First Baptist began praying to the Lord for intervention and direction.
After Easter of 2002, Rev. Valentine met with Senior Warden Neil Hodges and Assistant Warden Charlie Williamson about the possibility and logistics of implementing this ministry. Approval was soon granted. On April 22, 2002 the “First Contact Ministry” was launched as Rev. Valentine, Rev. Solomon, and Anita Parrish (Rev. Solomon’s Ministry Assistant and “boss”) visited with the friends and families of soon-to-be ex-offenders outside the main gate of the Huntsville Unit to learn first hand the needs of these men and women so that in turn, volunteers could be oriented and trained to take up this ministry on their own. It was at this time that Dr. Bonnie Thorne, a retired professor at Sam Houston State University and lay leader in the church, sensed the Lord’s call to take on the leadership of organizing volunteers for the First Contact ministry. Concurrently, the Lord led a businessman and his family to give $12,000 to First Baptist for the purpose of purchasing the Grand Champion Steer at the 2002 Walker County Fair. With other donations bringing the total to $15,000 the church staff was able to purchase the steer. On May 14, 2002, the church hosted a barbeque for the TDCJ staff and their families at the Huntsville Unit. This event served as a catalyst to start a weekly ministry to the Correctional Officers and staff of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice which continues to this day.
Trust, respect, and friendship soon developed between the staff of First Baptist Church and the staff at the Huntsville Unit. The church became a major resource for Warden Hodges and his administration by providing family and financial counseling as well as other benevolent services for the Correctional Officers and their families. In August 2002, Warden Hodges and Assistant Warden Williamson met with Rev. Valentine to entertain the possibility of having TDCJ certified volunteers from First Baptist meet with offenders who would soon be released from prison to discuss the resources available through faith communities in the cities and communities they would be returning to. The interest in this ministry was due to the fact that there are nearly 30,000 men released from TDCJ through the Huntsville Unit annually. If First Baptist were able to advertise these resources to the offenders themselves, the potential for impacting lives would grow even stronger. Through God’s provision, this ministry was approved. The first session was held the last week of October, 2002. From that time forward, volunteers from First Baptist meet with offenders on Sunday through Thursday nights prior to their release set for the following day in the Chapel of the Huntsville Unit to provide information on how they can receive help from faith communities once they return to their homes. The title given this ministry was quite appropriate: “Welcome Back.”
With the blessings of Janie Cockrell (Director of the Institutional Division of TDCJ) and Doug Dretke (Assistant Director of the Institutional Division of TDCJ), Jerry Phillips, Rev. David Valentine, and Rev. Emmett Solomon met with the Warden of the Gatesville Unit to implement the Welcome Back ministry for females that were being released from TDCJ in Gatesville. This occurred six months after the launching of the Welcome Back ministry at the Huntsville Unit. The First United Methodist Church of Gatesville and the Coryell Community Church provided volunteers to implement the Welcome Back ministry at the Gatesville Unit.
In May of 2008, both David Valentine and Jerry Phillips resigned from First Baptist to focus on expanding several of the Restorative Justice Ministries resulting in new church starts across Texas. One new initiative is the Welcome Back “Front Door” as volunteers meet with offenders coming into TDCJ and gather information about their families back home. This information is sent to churches desiring to minister to families whose loved ones are in prison. Often, the families of offenders are not connected with a local church but are willing to connect with a local church or start a small group or a new church.
Rev. Emmett Solomon serves as the Executive Director of the Restorative Justice Ministry Network of North America (RJMN) and is a Retired Director of Chaplaincy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Rev. Jim Brazil serves at the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and is a former Chaplain at the Huntsville (“Walls”) Unit; Rev. David Valentine serves as the Lead Pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Phillips serves as the Church Planting Pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas.