The new 9,500-square feet chapel at the Neal prison unit shows there are many who care about "the least of these."
The new chapel was filled early Thursday evening with more than 200 in attendance. Many wore sports jackets, a few in ties. Women wore dresses or nice pants.
This day was for them, but then again, it wasn't. It was really for about 25 or so men in attendance, men representing a larger population of 1,700. They wore standard white coveralls. They have checkered pasts and uncertain futures. Many have spiritual voids that need filling.
This 9,500-square feet chapel is for them. In the official vernacular, they are offenders. You'd call them inmates or prisoners. God calls them his children. Jesus calls them, "the least of these, my brothers."
"This chapel is significant more than you know," said Lynn Funk, one of the men in white told the audience. "This is a place where men will experience God's love and grace. It's a place were families will be rebuilt, relationships reconciled, and hope renewed in increased spiritual growth.
"This chapel is a legacy for the men in white and their families. This is a place that God will touch lives that have not been touched before."
To 99 percent of those in Amarillo and the Panhandle, not only will they never enter this chapel, but since it's on the backside of the Neal prison unit a few miles northeast of Amarillo, they won't even see it.
The prison population didn't really see it either until mid-week. There are rules about how close they can be to tools, one of many reminders of where this chapel was constructed and who it is for.
"The dream is a reality," Bob Manning said. "It is built."
The dream really started with Manning asking a question. On May 18, 2016, he and Larry Miles, head of the prison ministry at their church, Trinity Fellowship, went to the dedication of a chapel that seated 125 at the Formby Unit in Plainview. On the return trip, Manning asked Miles why there were no chapels at the Clements or Neal units in Amarillo?
"I guess because no one's stepped up," Miles said.
That was like waving a checkered flag.
"Sometimes we need to dare something so great," Funk said, "that it's doomed to failure unless God is in it."
In two months, the first dollar was raised toward an estimated cost of $1 million. By December 2016, the Panhandle Neal Unit Chapel, Inc., filed for 501(c)3 status. That usually takes 18 months to complete. It was done in less than three.
By May 2017 -- in one year since Manning asked that question -- about $850,00 of the necessary $1 million was raised. It was the mark needed for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to begin construction.
Groundbreaking was in September, with expected completion in mid-July. And here we are.
"Larry Miles has a saying," Manning said, "that if it's God's baby, he's going to kiss it. And He kissed it over and over again."
No longer will worship be in a gym or a classroom. The chapel has seating for 400. There are three classrooms, an office, a kitchen and storage area. And for the men, a true rarity -- blessed air conditioning.
Chapels are not a standard part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice units, of which there are 108 in the state that house 142,000 men and women. Those must come from private funds.
One million dollars raised locally, most by individuals? What does that say? What it doesn't say is these men are ostracized from society. It doesn't say they are forgotten. It doesn't say to lock them up and throw away the key.
What it says is we want you back, and we want you back prepared to be a productive part of society. Most of the men at Neal are getting out within a reasonable amount of time.
"Mother Teresa said, 'If you spend all your time judging me, there's no time to love me,'" said Don Powell, keynote speaker and the former FDIC chairman and federal coordinator of the Gulf Coast recovery of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "This is what this building is about. It's about love."
It's about the funding and building of a church on grounds where the average person would be stunned, as Funk said, "of God's work on this unit."
"Like any church, this place is not built as a place of perfection," said TDCJ board chairman Dale Wainwright, the first black to ever serve on the Texas Supreme Court. "Only one met that high standard. This is a place for the broken and those in need of healing can come and find a better way."
A little later Wainwright was called back to the lectern where Tom Foran, treasurer of Panhandle NUC, Inc., essentially turned over the keys to him.
"Chairman Wainwright, on behalf of Panhandle NUC, Inc., we present to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice the Neal Unit Chapel," he said. "May God truly bless all those who enter here."
Early on this Thursday evening, God already had.
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.