Norris Powell’s last days in prison were some of the most harrowing he had seen in almost a decade behind bars. He was just weeks away from release when the coronavirus was first reported in Texas prisons.
During the time he was incarcerated, Norris began a journey of faith that would lead him to Calvary Commission, a nonprofit ministry in Lindale that works with parolees seeking to change their life to one in which they serve others.
His Bible and his chaplain were his lifelines. When he was struggling, he could find always find a verse that brought comfort, and look forward to speaking with a minister in the coming days.
That support changed dramatically as the state organizations that run jails and prisons began taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus through its prisons. Those measures looked different depending on the county or state facility, because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice runs state facilities and counties jails are guided by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, but the common thread was limiting in-person interaction.
No longer could he sit down with his friends and chaplains and discuss his future, mentor others in worship groups or share the bonds that faith had helped him build.
For the first time in a long time, Powell was less certain about his future. He didn’t know if he was still going to be released on parole in early April. He wasn’t sure he still had a home waiting for him at Calvary International, where he would take the next step in his journey, and eventually return to prison as a missionary, not an inmate.
He said he leaned hard into his Bible study, using that extra time to focus on studying the Word.
“With most people it was terror, it was fear. The first thing they said was you (have to) stop movement. We were getting ready to be released and they said no one was going anywhere,” he said. “Everyone was panicking, panicking. Then I remembered what the bible said, that God is the author and finisher of my faith, and if he’s already set something in motion for me to do, then he will see it through. I just relied on that.”
Trusting God during a pandemic
In the years since he had made the decision to trust God with his life, Powell said the early days of the coronavirus outbreak were more challenging than any he had experienced.(tncms-asset)645dcb47-7a53-5867-9626-3ffa477d4628(/tncms-asset)
“Under normal circumstances when there’s not lockdown or crisis, your faith is pretty good because you get to move around, you get to experience the other Christians that are walking in faith, and you see people,” he said. “Now you see someone who may have their head down, and you can encourage them, and that helps because we’re all in lockdown, and we’re all in one place. Even though we’re all there, the morale is low, faith is not as high as when you’re able to move around. It’s something about mobility, I guess you would say, that helps in faith.”
Freedom to express their faith is one of the few things a prisoner can keep when incarcerated, so the loss of ability to engage in worship hit particularly hard.
“Normally you’re able to go to chapel, you’re able to see the Word not just from your brothers, but people from the outside that are bringing in something new for you,” he said. “(With the lockdown) you don’t know what’s going on really, it’s like you lost contact with the outside world. The chaplain is like the nucleus of what you’re standing for when you need someone to encourage you. When you’re locked in like that and you’re not able to get what you need, you feel a little short.”
Powell said that as hard as those days were, he knew they wouldn’t last, and that helped get him through. He reflected on the lessons he had learned and where his journey had already taken him, and the path that lay ahead. He said that he knows he is so much more than just the mistakes he had made in the past.
“I am (more). There’s a lot more to me than just what I’ve done. There’s a lot more to me than just who I have become,” he said. “There’s no end to what God can do and the changes he can make. I am a miracle sitting here today.”
On a cool evening in early April, he stretched his arms toward heaven and lost himself in worship in the parking lot of Calvary. His faith had gotten him through, and the feeling of praising God in the open air, among peers that had shared similar journeys, gave him a profound sense of God’s hand guiding his life.
“It was a release. It was a release. It was like everything that was inside of me had got set free. I was able to open up and outstretch my arms, being able to look into the sky,” Powell said. “Whereas all the other times I was looking at the ceiling, but I was able to see the sky, the clouds, the sun as they moved around and feel the presence of the lord. It was overwhelming. It was breathtaking.”
He believes it was God’s plan to bring him to this place at this time, in order to help him grow.
“By my coming here with the things that were going on I got to know everyone,” he said. “My faith got increased because we were having praise and worship in the parking lot. I marveled at that, and seeing the love that people had here.”
He had made it, and now he was going to focus on ensuring those still behind bars had the support to do the same.
“I write to people in the units that I was from, and I just received two or three letters from brothers, and I’m encouraging them to stay strong and in their faith,” he said. “I let them know that there is hope. I know how it is, what they’re going through right now. You have to trust in God.”
At 59 years old, Powell believes a new life is beginning. It is a life that he hopes to continue sharing with others, helping bring them into the presence of the Lord and encouraging them to trust God in the changes he can make in their lives.The Message and the road forward
For more than four decades Joe Fauss has been helping prisoners grow as believers and change their own lives, but in that time he has never seen a bigger challenge to their faith than the coronavirus outbreak.
In 1974 Fauss was running a ministry for troubled teens when something happened that would change not only his life, but the lives of so many others in the years to come.
One of his students had been picked up on a marijuana charge, and had asked Fauss to accompany him to court. He thought the sentence would reflect that this was a teen who had made a mistake. Instead the young man was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“The next thing I knew I was getting a letter from Coffield Prison, which was just opening at the time,” Fauss said. “I saw these mothers crying when they had to leave their sons, these wives crying when they had to leave their husbands, these children crying when they had to leave their daddies. My heart was so touched. I didn’t know anything about the system at all. I didn’t ask for an appointment, I burst into the warden’s office and said ‘Warden, I’ve got to help these men.’”
The warden told him not to worry, the state paid a man to do that. But Fauss said there was another man in the room, a Major, who told him if he really wanted to help, he could do the most good when inmates were released.(tncms-asset)39780eb9-9b48-5690-8289-696d56d28c1b(/tncms-asset)
Fauss took that to heart.
“So that’s when the ministry began to change from just drug addicts and street people to really seeing what could happen to a person when they got out,” he said. “I realized there were genuine believers following the Lord in the prison, and they were far ahead of the people we were dealing with at Teen Challenge. They learned how to fast and pray, they even talked about a dry fast, where they had no water. All these things where they are very committed people and I realized they could do something with their lives for the Lord. It began to be from a prisoner to a preacher, from a murderer to a missionary, however it would be.”
A reminder of faith in one photo
In his office Fauss has keepsakes from major milestones in the ministry as it grew to become a worldwide organization. On a closet door there’s just one photo though, Fauss and a group of men standing outside Coffield Unit in 1977.
“1977 we formed a new ministry called Calvary Commission, that was our first (step) to take 14 parolees that helped us get started,” he said. “At the time it was actually against the law for parolees to live together, but they let us do it and it’s grown to be an international ministry.”
Not only was Fauss able to persuade the state to let him work with parolees, but he managed to get the state to see the value in letting those same parolees witness to inmates. Today, 18 months after being released, former inmates can return to prison in a role they never thought possible. In addition to working with inmates around the state, he also helps lead the chaplain team at the Smith County Jail.
“It was great, I could go all over the jail and escort our team around. I was able to distribute bibles,” he said. “I would say, it’s not free it comes with prayer. So I would hold it until I got done praying, and they would laugh.”
Fauss said he tends to a range of spiritual and emotional needs, from talking to inmates on suicide watch to being on call for emergencies.
“Now it’s been interrupted, so we look at that as ‘now what do we do?’ We’ve had to be creative. There’s a hunger in the hearts of people and once this is freed up a little bit, we’re going to be able to do that,” he said. “Even though I can’t go into the Smith County Jail I go down and I park where I always did, right there at the door as the officers go in and out … We do what we can do.”(tncms-asset)54ce3192-32d0-57bd-a547-689903bafe03(/tncms-asset)
Fauss said for now they’re doing their best to meet the jailers between shift changes for words of encouragement and prayer.
Sheriff sees benefits of prayer
Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said not being able to have chaplains in the jail is incredibly difficult for the inmates.
“I think it has a great positive effect when they’re incarcerated, and it’s a terrible thing to keep them from coming in. I think that it makes more of a difference than we’ll ever be able to measure,” Smith said. “It’s not forced upon them by Joe Fauss and his group of ministers, but for people that are incarcerated it’s a great service that they provide. It’s something immeasurable.”
Smith said that it is his opinion that being unable to bring in chaplains has had a significant negative impact on inmates.
Calvary International also is an accredited institute of higher education, so the parolees saw a sudden stop to their classes with the state’s emergency orders. Fauss said he realized that he wasn’t seeing everyone on a day-to-day basis, and wanted to find a way for them to have fellowship.
“Well we didn’t have classes, but we had people who could not leave,” Fauss said. “After a while we began to feel like we don’t even know who is on this campus, there’s about 180 acres here and we’re not seeing them. So an idea came to us to have a praise on the parking lot.”
Fauss said they also had to adjust how to reach inmates when they couldn’t come in for prayer.
“A light came on because I had written a new book, it was called ‘Caution Watch Your Step’ and we were able to suddenly say, ‘I can send some books in,’” Fauss said. “So we started calling chaplains and they said, ‘yeah, send me 100.’”
How faith grows behind bars
Dustin Langley was in the nearby Harrison County Jail when the virus began to have an impact.
“It was quite shocking, to say the least. I guess whenever it first started hitting in China, I had a strong feeling that it was on its way around the globe. Everything is such a global community now,” Langley said. “Then it wasn’t long after that it hit the states. One thing that was shocking to me though was how it spread. It just seemed otherworldly. Something that you’ve never heard of before and then it was just … all over the nation.”
Langley said that in such a low population county jail, he found himself more isolated. He began to see that as an opportunity.
“My faith grew stronger every day. In a crisis like these, if you look at it, that’s what they’re meant for. That wall at the end of a crisis, it’s not a wall, it’s just God. A lot of people turn back around,” Langley said. “It did grow more difficult as my own faith was growing, because I wasn’t able to share that with others.”
Langley said his biggest test was trying to help people that either had lost their faith or didn’t have it. He wanted to find ways to help them see that there is a way through.
“Backsliding is (is a big deal) that I think the majority of us who have been in and out of the prison system and legal system deal with. Losing the faith, or whatever you want to call it, is that something that will affect me?” he said. “There are roadblocks, but removing those is what gives us more awareness to what already is, and that’s God. I don’t see it as a struggle in my own life anymore, which is amazing.”
Fauss said that the changes to how chaplains can help has impacted him as well, but he’s not going to let it change their mission.
“You feel very empty because of it. Every Wednesday I was headed down there,” he said. “You feel that vacancy that is there, but then you have to say ‘what else can you do?’”
Calvary International currently has 135 students approved, and is waiting to welcome them to the next stage of their lives, and help them take the next step in their journey of faith.