J.A.I.L. envelope stuffing

Johner Martin, left, Joe Pool and Evelyn Pool and members of the J.A.I.L. Ministry stuff envelopes recently at the Bell Baptist Association at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton in preparation for the ministry’s upcoming virtual banquet.

Bell County’s J.A.I.L. Ministry is gearing up to celebrate 33 years of operation with its second virtual banquet.

About 20 volunteers recently joined Steve Cannon, executive director, for a “stuffing party” at the Bell Baptist Association on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor campus. Occasionally sampling a well-stocked breakfast bar, they sent invitations to the J.A.I.L (Jesus Acts in Inmates Lives) Ministry virtual banquet, which will be available 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at www.jailmin.org.

The mailout invites people to join law enforcement, prison chaplains, ministers, business professionals, elected officials, volunteers and family in the celebration. Suggested ministry partnership levels range from $2,500 Underwriter to $150 Bronze. Individual reservations of $35 are available, along with the opportunity for any size gift.

Cannon said the banquet program will be broadcast live on Vimeo from the First Baptist of Troy, his home church. It will also be available on YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

“Go to the website and click on the banquet link,” he said. “That should be the best way to watch it.”

The guest speaker will be Eddie Sanders, an ex-offender who served nine years of a 99-year sentence. He has a jail ministry out of Pflugerville, Cannon said.

Cannon introduced Sharon Ellis, the widow of Harold Ellis, who founded the jail ministry in the early 1960s. While living in Houston, her husband worked with the Bill Glass prison ministry for about five years, she said. When they moved to Belton, Harold asked then Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith if he could “go down and share Christ with some of the people at the jail.”

“He decided he wanted to do more,” she said of her husband. “He got a group of people together to form a jail ministry. At that time, it had a different name.”

There were about a dozen volunteers, she said. Then Harold mentioned it at their church, the First Baptist Church of Belton, and a lot of members got involved.

“It just kept growing,” she said. “They started branching out and having correspondence courses for the guys in jail. Then they started reaching out to the jailers and helping support them, because it’s a very hard job.”

Sometimes jail team members volunteer for “critical incident debriefing,” she said.

“If someone drowns at the lake, for example, they will talk with the family and be with them and support them,” she said.

Sheriff Smith sometimes took Harold Ellis with him to sheriff association meetings, she said. They would share with officers from around the country about what the Bell County jail ministry was doing, and a lot of them started their own program, she said.

“The whole purpose was to cut back on recidivism, and to change their lives, leading people to the Lord to change their lives forever,” she said.

She gave the Rev. Johner Martin as a prime example.

“He was in jail,” she said. “The jail ministry shared with him. He accepted Christ and is now working with the jail ministry.”

She said Joe Pool of Belton was one of the first members of the First Baptist Church of Belton to begin working with her husband on the jail team. Pool, who still participates with the ministry, said he’s seen many people come to the Lord.

“I’ve met some of them after they got out,” he said. “Some were doing well. One of them enrolled at Temple College.”

Martin said he’s seen a lot of people make a profession of faith.

“I’ve got a couple of good success stories out of 20 years,” he said. “You always pray that it would be more.”

Before COVID-19 came along, Martin said, the jail team would go out every night, Monday through Friday and then have church on Saturday morning. During the week, Martin gave classes in anger management and life success.

“I was in there every day,” he said. “COVID shut it down.”

Almost all of the team’s group activity has reverted to virtual, he said.

Last year’s first virtual banquet was one of the ministry’s most successful fundraisers, he said. An advantage to having it online is that people who miss it can find it in the archives, he said.

Cannon said that during the COVID crisis the ministry is making video Bible studies available to the inmates.

“The audio of those studies goes as a podcast to 359 law enforcement centers in 39 states to more than 130,000 inmate tablets,” he said. “COVID has affected the ministry. Yet the Bible says God’s word does not return void.”