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Inmate luncheon may end after 10 years

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Dec. 17, 2010 at 6:17 a.m.

Victoria County jail inmates join hands in a prayer over the gifts of dinner as members of John Wesley United Methodist Church prepare their annual Christmas dinner  as a gesture of good will during Advent.

INMATE LUNCHEON HISTORYLaunched in October 2000 at John Wesley United Methodist Church.

Six lunches are offered each year to non-violent trustees of the jail.

At Christmas, the inmates are thrown a Christmas luncheon with entertainment, gifts and a Bible.

To contribute funds to support the luncheon, contact John Wesley United Methodist Church at 361-573-2722.

It isn't often that a group of inmates would be made the guests of honor at Christmas dinner, but that's exactly what happened Wednesday at the John Wesley United Methodist Church.

Donning green-and-white striped jail uniforms, 17 inmates filed through a long buffet line of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin and pecan pies, and other traditional Christmas menu items, and joined church members and law enforcement officials at the dinner table for the annual Christmas inmate luncheon.

Gene and Eva Studer, longtime members of John Wesley Methodist, launched the prison ministry program 10 years ago with the intention of showing appreciation to the prisoners who once performed manual labor throughout the city at no cost to Victoria residents.

"Did you get some of that pie there," Gene Studer asked one of the younger inmates sitting next to him at the table.

Studer said he conceptualized the unorthodox ministry idea while out running errands one cold December day, and noticed several Victoria County Jail inmates working on the side of the road.

"I came up with the idea to bring these inmates into the church and cook them a hot meal to show our appreciation for their work on the outside, to help keep Victoria streets and parks and cemeteries clean," he said.

Garnering support from the church, the church, partnered with the Victoria County Sheriffs Office and the Victoria Area Ministerial Alliance to carry out their vision for sharing love, God, and food during the holidays.

"We don't bring them here to preach to them," Eva Studer said. "We just let them know that there are still people out there that care for them, and God loves them no matter what they did."

The first luncheon was held in October 2000 with a handful of inmates and guards. The following years, the luncheon grew to about 30 inmates and more than 60 attendees. And rather than limiting the meal to once per year, the Studers and the church's hospitality team began cooking the meals every other month.

In the past decade, Studer said he's witnessed several of the inmates renew their interest in God because of the inmate luncheon, and many will return and visit them once they've been released from jail.

One such example is Ray Garcia, who attended Wednesday's luncheon. Garcia was released the day before from the jail, but attended the luncheon as a civilian to pay his respects to the church and see the inmate friends he left behind.

"It's very important. It gives us something to look forward to as far as having a Christmas dinner; we're not able to enjoy them with our families," Garcia said. "It's brought me closer to God, it sure has. And it lets us all know there's still love out there."

Garcia said many of the inmates aren't visited by family and friends, and rarely receive mail. The inmate luncheon at the church, therefore, is a time for them to gather with friends and be reminded of God's love.

For the past five years, the six inmate luncheons given throughout the year have been funded through a $2,000 grant issued by Formosa Plastics. But this year, Studer said the church missed the deadline for the grant and will be forced to close its doors to the 10-year-long tradition if they don't come up with alternative means of funding.

"We'd hate for this to come to an end after all these years," Studer said. "It means a lot to these guys, and to us, and we're not ready to give up on it."

With the future of the Christmas luncheon unknown, the Studers decided they would make the most of this year's menu and celebrate the season with their inmate friends as they have every year since its beginning.

"If we don't raise any funds, we'll have enough for one more meal and we'll have to cease doing this," Gene Studer said.

Studer insists that his luncheons go beyond serving hot food to inmates. In a small way, they just might touch one or two lives for the better.

"I feel like we have some influence on when they get released, and maybe they can look for a little different life than what they had in the past," he said.

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