Faith through trials: Volunteer teaches word of God to inmates
Published 2:39 pm Tuesday, February 26, 2013
This special feature originally appeared in Progress 2013. Pick up a copy at the Herald office, 310 Second St. NE.
Some people go to breakfast after church on Sunday. Others relax at home. But Bill Holder has a different routine. Each week after attending the service at Grace Baptist Church, Holder goes to the Mower County Jail and Justice Center.
Holder is one of three people who go to the jail to donate religious literature and talk with the inmates. Over the last 39 years, Holder has visited the jail on a weekly basis. He has touched many inmates and encouraged them to seek guidance through faith.
“I would just talk to them, get to know them a little bit,” he said.
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Holder moved to Austin in 1970 and worked as a school teacher at Ellis Middle School. About six months after he arrived, he experienced a life-changing moment while talking with a song leader at his church.
“He asked me: If I died tonight, would I go to heaven?” Holder said.
Following a divorce, Holder was having a rough time. This question got him thinking, and changed his views on life. He remembers Jan. 6, 1971, as the date he was saved.
Two years later, Holder’s friend, Ken Binkley, got the idea to go to the jail and help the inmates there. He urged Holder to come with.
“He just went to the sheriff and asked if we could do that,” Holder said.
And so began many years’ worth of dedication to inmates.
When meeting inmates, Holder asks if they have a church, and if they have accepted Christ as their personal savior. Often, he will ask the same question he credits as sparking his salvation in 1971. These days, his most common role is leading Bible studies at one of the classrooms in the jail. But he also works with inmates one-on-one.
“There’s so many guys who didn’t know what it took to be a Christian,” Holder said.
One former inmate Holder used to visit, Jim, said Holder’s visits deepened his faith with God and Jesus, and convinced him to read the Bible more.
“He helped open my eyes to God and Jesus,” he said. “He definitely got me thinking more along the lines that prayer can help.”
Holder came to visit regularly during Jim’s six to eight months in the county jail. He would ask Jim about his situation and spend time getting to know his interests. They would also pray together.
“I looked forward to him coming to see me,” he said. “I had never been in trouble before in my life.”
Although their jail meetings were about 23 years ago, the two still keep in touch to this day via letters and phone. Holder was a big influence for Jim, and helped him make the decision to never want to harm another human being again.
“I got a bigger high out of helping others rather than harming others through Bill’s influence,” Jim said.
During his visits, Holder tells inmates his own story, and the difficulties he has faced over the years. It helps them relate to him and understand accepting faith into their lives is more of a process than a simple switch. Some inmates will identify ways they would like to change and work to embrace their beliefs, but get frustrated or confused when they make mistakes along the way. Being born again doesn’t make you perfect, Holder said. It takes time and dedication.
“I can tell them it’s not an easy road all the time,” he said. “You do have trials.”
One of the biggest problems inmates will face, he said, is starting to believe circumstances have conspired against them. That sort of thinking hampers any positive change.
“Don’t think the system’s against you,” Holder tells inmates. “Just get out and help people.”
The Bible is a big part of Holder’s visits, along with religious literature in both English and Spanish. He gives a copy of the book to any inmate who wants one, and gives them pointers on how to make sense of it.
“I tell them what to do and how to read it,” he said. “It touches their heart. They tell me what they read that day.”
Holder is a Gideon, part of the international group that distributes one Bible about every two seconds. There are about 150,000 of them across the world, he said. In Austin, they speak to local congregations to raise money for the books.
Along with the three Gideons who go to the jail, Holder said, there are also Catholics who give communion to those who wish to receive it, and a woman who comes in specifically to talk to the women inmates.
Holder doesn’t leave his service to the inmates at the jail doorstep. Instead, he keeps a calendar at home of who he prays for each day and for how long.
And sometimes, his prudence is returned. Not long ago, Holder was worried about his wife, Helen, who would soon be undergoing surgery. He mentioned it during one of his visits, and an inmate told him he wanted to pray for her.
“He said the most beautiful prayer for Helen,” he said.
Holder’s work at the jail has shown him there are misconceptions about inmates, and the stigma is mostly not true. Many have a desire to better themselves, and are enthusiastic about participating in Bible study and other services.
Of course, different inmates have a different reaction to Holder’s presence.
“A large number would come up and talk, and some wouldn’t have anything to do with me,” he said. Some people warmed up over time, after a few weeks of seeing Holder show up.
The same goes for former inmates who he had spoken with at the jail. There are those who forget about their experiences and ultimately leave unchanged from Holder’s visits. But there are plenty of the opposite.
Through the work he does, Holder establishes a strong connection with many of the inmates. Some of them stay in touch after being released. Holder makes a point of calling them during the Christmas season to see how they are.
One inmate he used to visit regularly told him he had really changed. He had taken a completely different attitude in life, and was earning good grades in classes like chemistry and physics.
“I really can’t tell you the excitement I get from some of the results,” Holder said.
Another had called him toward the end of summer to let him know how inspiring Holder’s visits had been, and to say he was now married, doing well and very involved with his local church.
Even when he walks down the street, people approach Holder to see how he is. Though the visits only go until inmates are released from jail, the personal relationships last much longer.
Voluntarily teaches faith at the Mower County jail
Fun fact: Holder and his wife, Helen, have a large collection of nativity scenes they display during the Christmas season.