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Making History Today: "I Was In Prison and You Visited Me"

Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

James S. Currie, Executive Secretary

On Wednesday, February 28 Ivan Cantu was executed by the state of Texas for murders he maintained to his dying breath he did not commit. This column is not about death or innocence nor is it about whether one believes Cantu’s claims or not. It’s not even about being for or against capital punishment. Rather, this event reminded me of those persons who are called to minister to, work with, or simply visit those who are in prison. No doubt, there are many saints over the years who have engaged in this work in a selfless and important way. Among them are Presbyterians or persons related to Presbyterians in the southwest who have done this or who are doing this. 

In the Preface to the collection of sermons Karl Barth preached to inmates at the Basel prison, John Marsh, principal of Mansfield College in Oxford, refers to Barth’s prison visits as “a truly remarkable hidden ministry” (p. 8). I would suggest that anyone who is called to this ministry of presence with persons who live inside walls but outside open society is engaged in “a truly remarkable hidden ministry.” No tall steeples here. Little, if any, public recognition of the value of what they do. Just seeking to preach and live the gospel of grace as embodied in another who was imprisoned and crucified. 

For 15 years Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister  who was born in Nursery, Texas and a graduate of Austin College and Austin Seminary, served as chaplain to death row inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Before accepting that call, Pickett served churches in Sinton, Texas (1957-61),  Victoria, Texas (1961-67), and Huntsville (1967-80). In the Introduction to his book Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, Pickett writes: 

Over the years, I ministered to men so far removed from the social mainstream, so callous and mean-spirited, that any attempt to describe their evil mind-set requires a talent greater than mine. I’ve been cursed, spat upon, and threatened. On the other hand, I’ve met men whose guilt sprang only from tragic youthful mistakes for which they spent lifetimes begging forgiveness from God and their fellowman. Many were illiterate, some too mentally challenged to fully understand what they had done and why they were to die. And, despite the insistence of our former governor turned president, there were those put to death in whose guilt I did not believe. I met men who had, indeed, committed the crimes for which they were sentenced to die and who displayed genuine remorse. In those years between their crime and their punishment, some changed dramatically. Even on Death Row I saw men whose lives had regained some degree of promise, purpose, and even dignity. Yet they died the same death as the unrepentant. (p. xiii)

Pickett’s account of ministry to persons most others have forgotten and probably just as soon not hear about is a fascinating story. 

In addition, there’s Andy Edington who,  after retiring from being president of Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, would travel the 250+ miles from Kerrville to Huntsville on the third Sunday of the month to share the gospel with almost 300 inmates. He did this for seven years. He became so popular with the men there that they became very protective of him. For many years Edington shared many of his experiences as the Bible study leader at the Men’s Conference at Mo-Ranch. [More accounts of Edington’s life and ministry, including his trips to and from Huntsville can be found in 2014 Proceedings of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the PHSSW.] 

Finally, David Currie is the son of my cousin, Dean Currie, and grandson of my uncle, Rev. David M. Currie who served Presbyterian churches in Texas and North Carolina. David lives in Dallas and is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and of the University of Texas Law School. As one who could, no doubt, earn a more lucrative salary in a prestigious law firm, David has chosen for the past five years to work in the Federal Public Defenders Office. He, along with 20 other attorneys in the Dallas office (there’s also an office in Austin), represents persons on Death Row who are imprisoned in Livingston, Texas (not far from Huntsville). At any one time he has an average of 4-5 clients. While each case is different, one aspect of his work is to make sure the clients’ religious rights are protected. 

Barth opens his sermons to the prisoners in Basel with the words, “My dear brothers and sisters.” There’s a sense in which Barth seems to identify with those to whom he is speaking. Toward the end of his Preface to this collection of Barth’s prison sermons, Marsh writes: “And Barth knows that when he preaches to prisoners he is but preaching to himself, to them and to himself as dying sinners and yet as men redeemed from death by the gracious act of God” (p. 9). 

This is not an occasion to try to convert anyone – just share the gospel that is intended for everyone. We give thanks for these persons – and all those – who engage in this “remarkable hidden ministry.” 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: 

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.

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