Every Tuesday night, the University of St. Thomas Campus Ministry team goes to eat dinner together. But instead of turning into a restaurant parking lot, they arrive at a Houston transition program for formerly incarcerated women called Angela House.
The team brings the necessary ingredients to cook a meal with the residents and provide them with different options. Some students also play board games with the residents while the food is cooking.
“Getting to cook a meal and learning about their favorite foods and the things that they used to eat, or their favorite things to cook, has been really unique to me,” said UST campus minister Max Linville.
Linville said when choosing new places for campus ministry to volunteer last year he selected Angela House after meeting with an associate, who helps formerly incarcerated women get adjusted to their new lives.
Linville said he wanted to find a different approach to volunteer work at Angela House, which brought campus ministry into the kitchen, side by side with its residents.
“It’s more of an accompaniment model based off of just being with people and listening to their stories instead of just always serving them,” Linville said.
Since the beginning of September 2019, the team has connected with the residents over meals.
“If we don’t have relationships with those that are experiencing these issues, it doesn’t ever connect with us to actually want to work for justice or work for change,” Linville said.
Crystal Haynie, a current resident of Angela House, said the UST’s Campus Ministry has brought something new to their home. Haynie also noted the team’s regular visits and ongoing commitment is different from a donation or one-time volunteer experience.
“It’s not just something generic or something used out of your closet that you don’t want anymore that you think will help us,” Haynie said. “This is something that’s a good spiritual time that we just really need.”
Between 1980 and 2016, the incarcerated female population in Texas increased by 908%, nearing 13,000 women in 2016, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In terms of actual numbers, Texas imprisoned more women as of 2018 than any other state, the website notes.
Angela House executive director Kristin Guiney said she is familiar with the re-entry problems some formerly incarcerated women face because of her background in criminal justice and as a former Houston judge.
“They are survivors,” Guiney said. “They have come through some of the most horrific tragedies and trauma we can imagine and they want to do better.”
Guiney said Angela House provides residents counseling and financial literacy tutorials to help with their transition.
“When you imprison a woman, you imprison her whole family and the community that she comes from,” Guiney said. “We actually owe them the service of giving them an opportunity to succeed.”
Linville said he remembers one resident’s story of stealing to return to jail so she could get out of an abusive relationship. He highlighted the distinction between reality and some stereotypes about formerly incarcerated women.
“It’s a lot more complex, and these women have experienced things that a lot of us probably never have experienced,” he said. “It paints an understanding [of] all these issues that are going on.”
Guiney said she appreciates the “familial” atmosphere created by UST’s presence.
“It’s an extended family,” Guiney said. “UST being here is a very stabilizing force; it’s something the women can count on.”
Junior education major Emily Garza said UST Campus Ministry encourages students to volunteer and experience what the team does at Angela House.
She described one time a student made a last-minute decision to volunteer at Angela House after class.
“She didn’t really know what she was getting herself into, but she ended up loving it and I like to see those reactions,” Garza said. “They get impacted by just complete strangers.”
Yet Garza said she was actually hesitant to volunteer the first time.
“It’s not that I don’t like new experiences, but it takes a lot for me to do it,” Garza said. “It was a really cool experience and now it’s inspired me to keep doing new things.”
After a couple of visits to Angela House this fall, Linville said he plans to continue taking students to volunteer during the 2020 spring semester, and resident Crystal Haynie says she’s ready to welcome them back.
“We look forward to it,” Haynie said. “I look forward to it because it’s something different, and new faces that want to be here.”
As residents and students continue cooking dinners together, both have remained hungry not only for the meals, but also for each other’s company.
“Angela House has really helped the University of St.Thomas across this understanding of when we serve others in the community around us,” Linville said.
“It’s not a sense that we are disconnected; we’re all one and living in Houston.”