On a Wednesday night in October, 2005 in Houston, Texas Josh and Debs Walker were helping distribute meals and clothing to a local homeless population, when Debs spotted something unusual.
“On one of the chairs was a small little bundle of blankets and I thought that it was moving. To be honest, I thought it was a baby wrapped up in a blanket,” she said in a video-gone-viral posted on the Together for Adoption website. “It was soaking wet … and had a real strong stench off them. So I began to unwrap the blankets, and it was a really tiny baby.”
Baby Isaiah had mold and scabies growing on him, and critical neck injuries. He hadn’t been held in more than two months.
The baby’s mother was present – but was unable to take care of him. The Walkers agreed to care for Isaiah for a time while she could “get back on track.” Months later, they adopted him, and Isaiah became their fourth child.
But Isaiah isn’t the only one that the Walkers care for in Houston. Through their ministry, 7more, they also host a booming ministry that cares for ex-offenders as soon as they exit the state prison system; one of the only organizations in the area to do so. They also work alongside offenders in county jail. In 2016 alone, 7more will likely reach around 5,000 ex-offenders.
Originally from Dublin, Josh and Debs Walker had taken a break from more than a decade in youth ministry to come the the United States in 2005 to figure out the next phase of their life. Soon, the family ended up near some Houston connections. They quickly felt at home in the Texas city, despite its contrast to Ireland.
“We had three small kids and a thriving ministry in Dublin,” Debs Walker said. “We took a step of faith, and three weeks later we found Isaiah.”
In their work on the streets of Texas, the Walkers discovered that many of the homeless population were actually former offenders, who didn’t have any place to go once they returned to prison. In fact, many of them saw prison as a more comfortable place to live than the streets of Houston.
“Because of finding (Isaiah), we were thrown into a quick and deep understanding of inner city Houston,” Debs Walker said. “Our hearts were broken for the stuff we saw in the city – general poverty, fatherlessness, not enough facilities.”
Texas has a rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average of incarcerated adults per 100,000, according to the ministry’s website. At the end of 2014, the Texas prison population was 166,043, and the state’s criminal justice system annual budget passed $3.1 billion. Around 70,000 enter and exit the state’s criminal justice system annually.
Coming from Europe, which felt abundant in comparison with facilities for the underprivileged, the Walkers were especially struck by the contrast in Houston.
“Our hearts broke for people of the city,” Debs Walker said.
Many of the offenders, when released from prison, are placed on a Greyhound bus and dropped off in “the worst part of the city,” Josh Walker said. “These men are trying to come back into society with mostly good intentions … but [no resources].”
About 18,000 offenders are released annually in Houston, according to the ministry website; with 5,000 dropped off at a Greyhound bus station downtown.
No one else is meeting these prisoners, except shadows of their former life. Through 7more, the Walkers hope that each man and woman will be “met by the church, by God’s family, met by the Kingdom.”
“We want to help you with your dignity, honor,” Josh Walker said. “You’re here to do good and do make a difference in this community. Not just survive. You’re not second-class citizens.”
With five staff members and a 50-person volunteers base, 7more offers a variety of services ranging from bags of clothing and shoes when the individuals are released from prison to any follow-up necessary and basic next steps – such as obtaining a driver’s license or applying for a job.
They ask about their dreams, what they wanted to do before prison became their life.
“We want them to have people to walk with them,” Debs Walker said. “They’re not alone. The needs are different for everybody.”
Explore this mission further HERE.
— Kara Bettis is a Boston-based reporter who covers topics of faith, politics and culture. You can follow her on Twitter @Karabettis