HUNTSVILLE—“I’ve been in prison before,” Michael Rios humbly reflects. “I came in when I was very young. I had the right ideas, I had the right intents: get out, get married, have a life.”
Dressed in a white prison uniform, Rios speaks slowly but directly, his tattooed hands gesturing to accentuate his points. He has been in prison longer than some of his fellow inmates have even been alive. Though Rios had the “right intents,” bad choices have kept him locked up, and he is currently serving a life sentence.
A sense of weariness can be detected in his voice, but curiously, it is overshadowed by a much stronger sentiment: hope. His years behind bars afford him unique insight into prison life, which opens doors for him to provide other inmates exhortations of eternal value.
“I see a lot of myself in these guys,” Rios says. “They want to go home, but if they have no foundation in God, they’re going to fail. … God gave me a chance and I failed, so I try to reach out to others so they won’t fail.”
Rios serves as one of four “field ministers” at Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Deployed from Darrington Unit in Rosharon, these ministers are graduates of Southwestern Seminary’s undergraduate prison program, which equips life-sentence inmates with a theological education and sends them to other prisons across the state so that they may invest their lives in the inmates in those locations. They go forth as prophets of hope, preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins through the blood of the Savior who loved them, died in their place and is now alive and highly exalted, offering eternal life to all who put their faith in him. In short, these ministers know that what those inside the prison walls need more than anything else is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We weren’t born to live in this box. We were born to be fathers, husbands, leaders and servants in our community.”
Michael Rios, Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas
“We weren’t born to live in this box,” Rios declares in his common counsel to fellow inmates. “We were born to be fathers, husbands, leaders and servants in our community.
“You’ve made maybe 3,000 decisions to get you over here. All you have to do is make that one decision to help you get out, which is [to follow] Christ.”
Southwestern launched its Darrington extension program in 2011, and Rios, along with fellow Estelle field ministers Raymond Ramirez and Michael Ryan, was part of the inaugural class. This first class of 33 inmates graduated in May 2015 with Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies degrees. An additional 33 inmates—among them Billy Jones, Estelle’s fourth minister—graduated the following year. These 66 men have since been deployed to various units, which they view as mission fields.
All four of Estelle’s ministers surrendered their lives to the Lord while in prison and attest that Southwestern impacted them greatly. “It really has taken me out of my shell,” Rios says. “It’s molded me and shaped me to be what God wants me to be.”
Ramirez adds, “A lot of my questions were answered. And that has impacted me so much that it has given me a desire to teach, to pass on what I’ve received. So now, that’s actually what I’m doing. I’m doing a lot of mentoring, a lot of discipling, a lot of teaching.”
Since arriving at Estelle, the four ministers have each set about passing on what God has entrusted to them. Ramirez learned sign language in four months in order to minister to the prison’s deaf community. (He is often asked how he managed to accomplish such a feat, and his response is simply, “Man, I don’t know. I’m freaking out about it myself.”)
Ramirez also works with the unit’s Spanish community and runs a “mini-seminary” within the English-speaking community, walking his students through a theological curriculum he himself wrote based on his seminary education. The experience is complete with exams, quizzes, book reviews and presentations.
Rios, meanwhile, has become the guards’ go-to counselor for inmates in need, even gaining access to the high-security wing of the prison; Ryan leads Bible studies and does room visitations in the medical facility; and Jones “tier walks” the north end of the prison, walking from cell to cell and engaging inmates in conversation. He also counsels and teaches a discipleship class, covering such topics as biblical history, text criticism and evangelism.
Through the course of their ministry, these men have found that simply being there for the inmates and assuring them that they are loved can reduce even the most hardened criminals to tears. The experience of having such people open up and share their deep, intimate thoughts has led Rios to conclude that “it has to be God doing these things.”
Ryan continues, “People over here really need somebody. So God didn’t just put me over here and give me this education for no reason; He gave it to me not just for the knowledge, but so I can go be available for somebody.”
Chris Carter, senior warden at Estelle, says the efforts of these ministers have transformed the culture of the prison. A basketball tournament this fall, for example, saw people of every race participate, and there were no fights or issues of any kind. Previously, the warden says, these inmates would have been unwilling to stay in the same room with one another, but because of the field ministers’ influence, they not only had fun together during the tournament, but in between periods of play, they all prayed together.
“When you introduce God into a culture, they stop fighting; the aggression goes away. They start looking for ways to build each other up as brothers. They don’t look at each other as enemies anymore.”
Chris Carter, senior warden at Estelle
“When you introduce God into a culture, they stop fighting; the aggression goes away,” Carter says. “They start looking for ways to build each other up as brothers. They don’t look at each other as enemies anymore.”
In line with this changing of culture, the ministers have begun to observe an eagerness in their disciples to make disciples of their own. After teaching his class an evangelism method called the “3 Circles Life Conversation Guide,” Jones witnessed one of his students approach a member of a gang known as “the Aryan Circle.”
The student asked if the gang member had ever heard of “the three circles.” Intrigued simply because of the word “circle,” which he assumed related to his gang in some way, the gang member said “no” and then inquired about them.
“And so the [student] was able to present the gospel using the three circles to him, and now the [gang member] comes to church every Sunday,” Jones says. He joyously reflects, “That [evangelism method] was something that I taught the guy.”
Similarly, Rios is often told, “I want to do what you do. You need to go ask the warden if I can get a [security pass] and just come walk with you.”
Although honoring such a request may not be possible, Rios nevertheless affirms the sentiment. “That’s one thing I try to do—encourage them to seek the gifts that God gave them,” he says. “And I try to help them grow and become good servants and good leaders and just stay humble.”
A key verse for all the ministers is 2 Timothy 2:2, which says, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In light of this exhortation, the ministers use their unique skills, backgrounds and interests in order to teach, counsel, evangelize, disciple and love those whom society has more or less written off. And the recipients of this ministry, in turn, set out to do the same.
“I believe that by helping them instill the [the values and principles from the Bible] in themselves, they can accomplish what I’ve accomplished, but even beyond me,” Ramirez says. “They can accomplish more than I even have because that’s what the Bible is able to do.”
—This article first appeared in Southwestern News magazine.