It’s almost Thanksgiving, and on a van ride to Coffield Unit—a maximum-security prison in Anderson County, Texas—there’s a mix of nerves. Most of the group of men traveling there, nearly all from Gateway’s communications department, have never been inside a prison. The stories you hear about prison life certainly don’t ease the apprehension. The team is heading to Coffield, the largest state prison in Texas, to document the launch of Gateway’s first prison campus, which is being housed in the unit’s chapel.
And then there’s Alex Loredo, also in the van, who is nervous for a different reason. It has been five years since he finished serving a six-year sentence, and this is his first time going back in. He’s dressed sharply and holds the thick leather-bound Bible that Gateway Pastor Marcus Brecheen gave him when he was sentenced years ago.
“It’s surreal to be going back,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get in for a long time, but there is a lot of red tape for convicted offenders returning to visit.” He wants to return to help minister to the inmates, but he is looking forward to seeing one in particular—Will, a mountain of a man with smooth, charcoal-colored skin and a clean-shaven dome.
Alex tells the story of his first day entering the general population of another prison at only 19 years old. After the door clinked shut behind him, a hulking African-American inmate immediately approached him with purpose. Alex thought, I’ve only been here less than a minute and I’m about to be in a fight! But instead the man reached out to shake his hand and introduced himself as Will. He wanted to make sure Alex didn’t get mixed up in the wrong crowd.
“You have to talk to them as soon as they get here because prison has so much to offer them, and it’s almost all bad,” says Will. “I want to get a hold of them—especially the younger people—and tell them about the Lord.”
Will is less than two decades into a 420-year sentence, which he has served at various state prisons, including the one where he met Alex. He says he’s lost count of how many inmates he’s approached as they walk into prison for the first time. He helped Alex lay a foundation for his faith while they did time together, and now that Alex is out, he and his family remain close to Will. However, this was the first time they’d seen each other in years. They embrace and within a minute it’s like old times.
The chapel at Coffield Unit serves as both a reprieve from and a reminder of the walls that hold the inmates captive. There is a vaulted wooden ceiling and through the stained glass window behind the platform you can see the razor wire snaking by outside.
Men in white prison uniforms mill around the room preparing for Gateway’s first service. Wearing nametags that read “Usher” and “Greeter,” they have gotten the room ready for the service and shortly after the worship team begins to play, the inmate leading worship stops the music to say something to the 550 men in attendance. “I woke up in the middle of the night feeling depressed,” he says. “But then I remembered that Thanksgiving is next week, and I have so much to be thankful for.” This word did something unexpected in the room. The men cheered, lifted their hands, and shouted “thank you” to God. Even the inmates considered more dangerous who were seated in the back were affected. After the music, Pastor Jimmy Evans walked to the podium and shared a sermon about being part of the body of Christ.
“We want the men and women in prison to have a church while they’re in and when they get out, so they can be integrated back into society,” says Pastor Jimmy in the prison guard mess hall after the service, as he and Coffield’s warden, Jeffrey Catoe, chowed down on prison food. “Guys in prison need a church, and we want to be a church family—literally.”
The Gateway service at Coffield looks a lot like a weekend service at any Gateway campus. Every Wednesday night, inmates gather in the chapel for worship (the men on the worship team are trained by Gateway’s worship leaders and musicians) and the weekend message (preached live just three days earlier) is projected onto large screens hanging from the chapel ceiling. There’s even a welcome center as well as greeters at the entrance and ushers to help make sure everyone has a good seat.
On the communications team’s second visit to the prison, one month later, it was the Wednesday after Gateway’s performance of Chasing Lights. Any concerns about how a musical would go over in a maximum-security prison were quickly quelled as more than 70 men raised their hands to accept Christ. In fact, after only 6 months in Coffield Unit, Gateway has seen more than 600 salvations. “I never knew that I could feel so free inside prison,” said one inmate after the service.
So how did this all come together? For more than seven years, Pastor Stephen Wilson has visited Coffield and many other prisons with Gateway ministry partner G3 Prison Ministries, which he and his wife, Celeste, started. Now, with Gateway’s vision to open a number of prison campuses, Pastor Stephen has joined the Gateway staff and is overseeing this growing ministry.
His heart for this particular ministry is matched by his experience. “I am an ex-offender and I got saved right before I started a two-year sentence,” says Stephen. “A volunteer came in and told me about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I said, ‘God, if there’s more of You, I want it.’”
When Stephen made parole, he went to seminary, earned his master’s degree, and began pastoring a small church plant. But on Saturday nights he and his wife came to Gateway to be filled before their church service the next day. However, it wasn’t long before they made the leap and joined Gateway while growing G3 to a full-time ministry.
While his job at Gateway is new, his vision for prison campuses at the church has been long anticipated. “My first meeting to launch a Gateway Prison Campus happened seven years ago,” he says. “We’ve been praying for this for seven years.”
Now that it’s all coming to fruition, some unanticipated things have begun to happen. In December, only one month after the launch of the campus, Tia Hall walked into the Dallas Campus for the first time, and she told her story to Pastor Marc Bolling.
Her husband, Jason, is an inmate at Coffield Unit and has started attending the Gateway campus there. He told her to find and become a member at the nearest Gateway campus, and so she ended up at the Dallas Campus. “There are thousands of guys in that prison and society just forgets about them,” she says. “Gateway has come in and shown that they care about them. Jason is further along in his faith than I am, but I’m so glad he encouraged me to visit Gateway. He won’t be up for parole until 2026, but now we can go to church together."
To learn more about Gateway’s prison ministry or get involved, visit gatewaypeople.com/campuses/prisons.