On Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, hundreds of incarcerated men came to the chapel at the Coffield Unit expecting to hear their normal weekly Gateway Church service. However, on that day, something was different. Pastor Robert Morris, the founding lead senior pastor at Gateway Church, made a surprise visit to the 439 men in attendance to personally deliver a message of hope and encouragement. Morris says, "I was honored to minister to the men at our Gateway Church Coffield Campus Wednesday. They were so welcoming and gracious, and we have seen so many hearts changed by God's saving grace."
Morris was excited to share a message with the men at Coffield and then surprise Gateway's seven other church campus locations by airing the recorded message from the Coffield chapel during normal weekend services. Morris also shared that "anyone's heart can be made new. We're so thankful Jesus forgives all people who come to Him in repentance and accept Him as Lord of their life. Our motto at Gateway is 'We're all about people,' and we believe that's true no matter where you are, even in prison." The full message, titled "Why?" can be viewed on gatewaypeople.com.
Gateway Church, a multicampus church with six locations across the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and one location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has recently added a campus dedicated to an underserved community—the H.H. Coffield Unit, the largest incarcerated population within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. Located outside Tennessee Colony in Anderson County, which is 90 minutes southeast of Dallas/Fort Worth, the Coffield Unit houses more than 4,000 criminal offenders.
Committed to discipling the incarcerated and their families, Gateway Church launched the Coffield Campus in November 2018, and the initiative was announced to Gateway Church members on January 27, 2019. Weekly attendance at the Gateway Church Coffield Campus averages 400 people, and since its inception, there have been more than 1,000 decisions for Christ.
Through the ministry, inmates can experience regular worship and attend Gateway classes centered on discipleship, marriage and parenting to help prepare them for life after incarceration. Additionally, there are groups at Gateway campuses for families of the incarcerated to help them through this period, as well as prepare for life once their loved one is released from prison.
"Since we started having Gateway services at Coffield, men's lives are being changed. Men who were convicted of felonies are turning their lives around and reconnecting with their families," says Coffield chaplain Allen Barker.
The Gateway Church Coffield Campus runs like any other campus, with inmates serving as greeters and ushers and operating the sound, video and audio. Stephen Wilson, an ex-offender who went to seminary and has been ministering in prisons for years, serves as the Gateway Coffield Campus pastor.
Not all inmates can attend service regularly. The 2,000 minimum-security offenders can attend each week. The medium-security offenders are only able to attend on special occasions, such as the November launch service, and maximum-security offenders are not able to attend but receive materials from Gateway including the church magazine, devotionals and books like the bestseller The Blessed Life by Pastor Robert Morris.
Gateway Church has already opened a second prison campus at Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas, and plans to open more within 100 miles of existing campuses so members of the church can serve and volunteer at the Gateway prison services on a regular basis. The third Gateway Church prison campus will launch in the fall of 2019 at the Lindsey Unit in Jacksboro, Texas.
Gateway believes that spiritual health is key to church growth. Through the church's Gateway Network, they offer more than 1,000 resources for building a healthy church, including resources on the prison ministry. For other churches interested in learning more about starting a prison ministry, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit gatewaynetwork.com.
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