Christmas key time for Hospitality House
A Baptist ministry in Huntsville, Texas, provides food, lodging and Christmas for families of prison inmates.
By Jeff Brumley
It’s always tough visiting loved ones in prison. A spouse or parent can see incarceration taking its toll over the years while they continue to deal with the legal, financial, social and emotional impact of the crimes.
But it’s much worse the closer you get to Christmas, says Debra McCammon, executive director of Hospitality House, a Baptist-run nonprofit that serves the families of inmates in the many prisons in and around Huntsville, Texas.
“They want to bring some Christmas joy” to the inmates and “to know the family cares and he is not forgotten,” McCammon said. “But there is also a lot of longing and frustration – ‘look at what he is missing, he’s not here on Christmas morning.’”
It’s a similar feeling at Thanksgiving and other holidays and birthdays, she added. “There’s some frustration and also some anger -- the families just have a very difficult time dealing with it.”
As the only place in Huntsville where up to 2,800 people a year stay free during those visits, Hospitality House is on the frontlines of the ministry called for in Matthew 25, McCammon said.
‘No one reaches families’
“In prison all these men have an opportunity to hear the gospel, but so many of the families on the outside … no one is reaching out to the families,” she said.
With 16 bedrooms capable of sleeping a total of 52, the 26-year-old facility welcomes hundreds of visitors a year. It is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and is supported by around 100 churches.
In addition to beds and showers, visitors are treated to home-cooked meals and to take-home clothing and groceries if needed. Bible studies, spiritual counseling and fellowship are also provided. Art and music therapy is available for children.
Families are also provided orientations on how the prison system works, and how to conduct themselves during visitations.
‘Believers must step up’
The service is meant for those who cannot afford hotel rooms after driving or flying long distances to visit loved ones in the 16 prisons located within a two-hour drive of Huntsville, McCammon said.
Making it all possible are the donations of money, clothing, food and volunteer hours of churches throughout the region, most of them Baptist.
Participation ranges from financial contributions to sending short-term mission teams who perform maintenance and upkeep and provide friendship to the clients.
“It’s all about the families and their stories and we as believers have to step up and ask, ‘how can I be involved?’” McCammon said.
‘Inmates were touched’
There was never any question that Paula Lance would step up when she learned of Hospitality House two years ago.
“I’ve been to prison, so I know what it’s like on the inside and I know these people on the inside are hurting for their families,” said Lance, 47, a member of Rainbow Hills Baptist Church in San Antonio.
Lance served 14 months in federal prison in Minnesota for bank fraud, and knew the stress it placed on her family to visit her behind bars from Texas.
“I know how much that meant to me, and even in the bunks next to me the other inmates were touched,” she said.
So Lance is now one of the most dedicated volunteers at Hospitality House, even as her church regularly sends youth, seniors and others on regular mission trips there. It also sends school supplies and Christmas toys.
“Everybody from 9 to 90 who goes there will know what it’s like to be around people who have submitted to Christ in serving there,” Lance said. “For the most part it’s just a calming experience for the entire family.”
Calm is just what Teresa Trevino said she needs after making the nearly five-hour drive to Huntsville from Victoria, Texas.
‘His face lights up’
Trevino, who is 76, makes that journey, often alone, once a month to see her brother, who’s serving a life sentence for murder. She’s been making the trip for 26 years and said she couldn’t afford the frequency of visits without Hospitality House. She said the ministry is fulfilling the Great Commission by making it possible for inmates to see their families.
“Every time I go to see him he has this joy,” Trevino said. “His face lights up when we visit him.”
Goal: Comprehensive ministry
McCammon said Hospitality House is taking steps to provide similar services for the families of crime victims who visit Hunstville-area prisons for parole hearings, mediations and executions.
“We want to expand the ministry to be more comprehensive to minister to the families on both sides,” she said.
But doing so is much more complicated than simply inviting those families to stay at Hospitality House. Chaplains and other prison experts have warned against having the families of victims and convicts under the same roof.
Also, victims’ families come to town much less frequently and in far fewer numbers, so it doesn’t make sense to evict the larger group for the smaller, more sporadic visits of victim families.
“It would be hard to keep a nonprofit going just for victims families,” McCammon said.
So Hospitality House now provides hotel rooms for qualifying families and gift cards for meals. And it’s raised $9,000 of the $35,000 or so needed to purchase a three-bedroom house that will be used to house victim families, she said.
“We have to do something on both sides of crime,” McCammon said.
‘On the floor, crying’
The truth of that is underscored at the holidays, she added. While there are no executions currently planned in December, there were three in November.
Those are tough on both sets of families.
And on Dec. 21, McCammon said, the state plans to release 300 prisoners. Hospitality House expects a rush of families who want to be there when it happens.
The ministry is preparing in part by having more gifts available for the parents and for children.
McCammon said she knows it will be a powerful experience for all involved.
“Moms and dads are able to take trash bags filled with presents back home to give their kids on Christmas morning,” she said. “I have watched as moms fall onto the floor crying, their mascara running.”
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.