SAN DIEGO—Lester Fatheree’s life has not always gone according to plan, but he never has doubted God’s purpose for his life. That combination serves him well as he ministers to offenders at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Glossbrenner Unit in San Diego, about 50 miles west of Corpus Christi.
The men there need to know that while their lives have gone awry, God still has a plan for them, he said.
Fatheree recalls being “dramatically called to ministry” at age 16 at Calvary Baptist Church in Lufkin. He told his pastor, “‘I’ve got to preach,’” he recalled, adding, “I’ve never doubted that in all my life.”
His pastoral ministry did take an unexpected turn, however, when his wife left him and their two children to begin a new life with another man.
Divorce and a new direction
Fatheree questioned whether churches would call a divorced man as pastor, and he discovered many would not. But as God helped him recover from the hurt, he also brought to mind a feeling from his youth that perhaps God wanted to use him in the western United States.
Fatheree continued to supply preach and help churches in an interim capacity, but he needed some time before he felt comfortable and ready to serve as a pastor again.
Finally, Fatheree and his new wife, Kay, travelled to Wyoming to preach for a small church. The church called him unanimously—all seven members said “yes”—and he stayed there 19 years.
The Fatherees decided it was time to move back to Texas in 2010, and for 18 months, they served as house parents at the Ben Richey Boys Ranch in Abilene. The census there lowered to the point Fatheree again was hunting a job, and he discovered divorce was a sticking point for many congregations.
Almost by accident one day, his wife noticed an opening for a prison chaplain. He applied and was granted an interview.
“I left there thinking: ‘This is what God is doing. I’m getting this job,’” Fatheree recalled.
He later learned his answer to the last question got him the job. When asked why he should be hired instead of someone else, Fatheree told the interviewer he wouldn’t say he was best, but he did say, “I live and breathe to make a difference in the life of every person God brings across my path.”
After training, he began serving at the San Diego substance unit Oct. 29 last year. Since that time, more than 75 offenders have made professions of faith in Christ, and he has baptized 73. Two men want to wait until they are released for baptism, so their families can witness the spiritual mile marker.
Since Fatheree always has served small churches as pastor, his prison converts comprised by far the most baptism he has performed in a year, he noted.
“I come every Sunday thinking, ‘Somebody’s going to give his life to the Lord,’” he said with a wide grin.
Of the 500 offenders at Glossbrenner, about 80 to 100 attend worship services—so many that a second service became necessary.
The unit is the last step for inmates before they are released. The men arrive at San Diego for six months of training and treatment, “so every six months, I have a completely new congregation,” Fatheree said.
While the time is short, he said, he feels God’s calling to the chaplaincy there.
“They told me in the interview: ‘Win them all to Jesus. We don’t care.’ Well, that’s my kind of place. I love the Lord and love his word. I know that the real difference, if they are going to get out of here and stay out of here, comes from having the strength of the Holy Spirit in their life and following Jesus Christ,” Fatheree said.
He knows some people question salvation decisions made in prison and write it off as “jailhouse religion.”
“Is that possible? Sure, just like anybody who walks the aisle in a church on Sunday morning,” Fatheree said. “They make a public commitment to follow Jesus. Do they know Jesus? He knows. I don’t. But some of them, I’ve seen them change. I’ve watched them change, and I’m just overwhelmed at what God does in the lives of these people.
“They come to me with all their problems—sometimes it’s substance (abuse), sometimes it’s some other area of their lives that they struggle with, and I tell them, ‘You know treatment will help you deal with substance (abuse). Let’s just pursue Jesus. We’ll find him, and everything else will take care of itself. And I believe that with all my heart.”
While he not standing in front of a congregation who return to their homes after each service, Fatheree said, he is content in what God is doing in his life now.
“I love what I’m doing. I’m a pastor at heart. Whether I’m a chaplain or in a church, I’m a pastor. That’s what I am, and this is what God has called me to do,” he said.
He believes the trials in his life have prepared him for this ministry.
“I’ve lived through garbage. These guys are living through garbage, too. Most of us in life do at some point or another,” he said.
“Part of what I have to offer is the assurance that there is nothing you’re going through that God is not going to stay through. There is nothing you’re going through that has made you unlovable to him.
“He sees you as his bride. He sees you as his. And he’ll never quit loving you, and he’ll never let you go.”