- December 5, 2003
- By John Rutledge
Texas religious leaders convene to consider human needs
By Ken Camp
Texas Baptist Communications
DALLAS--Shared concern about human needs in Texas, particularly criminal justice and immigration issues, recently brought together leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas Conference of Churches.
Severe cuts in funding for prison chaplains, together with growing anxiety about the plight of immigrants, prompted the group to explore ways they cooperatively can develop ministries and influence public policy, according to Phil Strickland, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.
Strickland and Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, president of the Texas Conference of Churches, convened the mid-November meeting that included BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade and other BGCT staff, as well as key ecumenical leaders.
"We went back to Matthew 25 as the basis for our concern," Pfeifer said. "That reminds us the call to all of us as Christians, and indeed as human beings, is to reach out to strangers and aliens among us and to reach out in compassion to the prisoners."
The group appointed two study committees, one to examine the prison chaplaincy shortage, and the other to explore immigration issues in close cooperation with the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas and other religious groups.
"All concerned came away with a sense that these are not just Catholic or Episcopal, Methodist or Baptist issues, but they are issues that the Christian community as a whole cares about," said Randall Smith of Texas City, president-elect of the Texas Conference of Churches.
In the last Texas Legislature, "lawmakers slashed funding for chaplaincy programs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, creating a critical shortage of chaplains in state correctional facilities," Strickland said.
The national chaplaincy standard is a ratio of 500 inmates per chaplain. Even prior to the reduction in force this year, the ratio in Texas Department of Criminal Justice institutions was double that recommendation.
But since the legislature reduced the chaplaincy budget by $1.8 million, that cut the number of chaplains from 153 to 80, changing the 1,026-to-1 ratio to 1,962-to-1.
Regarding the immigration issue, Strickland pointed out that both the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas and the BGCT at their annual meetings passed resolutions calling for "proactive involvement of ministry activity among immigrants, documented and undocumented."
The Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas resolution also called on Hispanic Texas Baptists to speak "forcefully and clearly in opposition to the current immigration system that hinders the search for freedom and prosperity," and it said the Hispanic Convention "encourages the adoption of new legislation that would unshackle the immigrant."
More than 13 million immigrants entered the United States between 1990 and 2001, Pfeifer noted. In September, he was one of seven Catholic bishops serving along the Texas/Mexico border who called for comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration laws.