Shepherd Mullens Correctional Visitation Center

A child touches a video visitation monitor while her family talks to a loved one at McLennan County’s Shepherd Mullens Correctional Visitation Center in 2010.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file

A pickup basketball game two years ago was the inspiration for a free barbecue hospitality event Saturday to unite two unlikely groups: law enforcement and families of those incarcerated in the McLennan County Jail.

The Holy Spirit Episcopal Church has partnered with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office to host an event at the Shepherd Mullens Visitation Center, 3241 Marlin Highway in Waco, to help break down barriers. Organizers expect about 100 law enforcement officials and more than 400 loved ones of inmates to attend.

Social service agencies will be on hand to assist with needs families of those incarcerated may be facing, and guests can eat lunch while socializing while they wait to visit their loved one. Organizers are eyeing the forecast as thunderstorms are expected Friday night.

For Matthew L. Anderson, a chance meeting that turned into a friendship planted the seed that’s now blooming with this weekend’s event.

Anderson, a Great Texts adjunct professor in Baylor University’s honors college, regularly finds himself at Seley Park playing hoops. There he struck up an acquaintance with a teenager during a game. Shortly afterward, the young man, about 17, broke his parole, went to jail, and landed in the state prison system for six months.

“He didn’t have many people in his life that he could talk to on a regular basis, who could afford the phone calls it takes,” Anderson said. “He called me from jail every day for two weeks, then for about two to three times a week for his six months there. I heard all about life inside the jail.”

Through the experience, Anderson began to recognize the heavy burden on families and loved ones of those incarcerated. He said he and fellow church members hope that free coffee, doughnuts, barbecue, good conversation and maybe a game of chess will help those families feel loved and respected. The church has invited people throughout the community who have loved ones incarcerated, as well as local law enforcement, in the hopes of breaking down the barriers between the two groups.

Anderson said the young man he befriended may attend the lunch. The friend has since found a job and is “doing as well as he’s ever done at the moment.”

Coffee and doughnuts will be on hand at 8 a.m. at the Shepherd Mullens Visitation Center. Guess Family Barbecue will serve food from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., or when food runs out.

“I cannot lie. Their barbecue is unbelievably good,” Anderson said. “When I thought about doing this, that was a real criteria for me. I want to treat families with respect, to honor them, to treat them with dignity. And the way we do that is with really good food.”

To spread the word, Anderson reached out to sheriff’s office Capt. Ricky Armstrong and asked if church members could visit inmates to share about the first-time event. Since the event has the potential for awkwardness between the two different groups, Anderson said, he wanted invitations to the barbecue to come from the inmates themselves. Church members visited with about 1,200 inmates and shared the idea. The members then handed out envelopes to any inmate wanting to write a loved one to tell them about the event. About 25 percent, or 350 inmates, agreed to send out invitations, Anderson said. About 130 family members have responded affirmatively to the invitation.

“I do expect some kind of, ‘What is going on?’ and genuine skepticism and I kind of expect that on both sides,” Anderson said. “I don’t think I’m naive about the kind of tensions that can exist within our community. Partly because the work of law enforcement, it is intrinsically punitive.”

“It’s something we’ve agonized about a lot,” he said.

Anderson said they’ll have to-go boxes on site for any family member that gets uncomfortable but still wants to enjoy the barbecue.

Armstrong said when Anderson approached him with the idea he was interested in the concept. Armstrong said several of the sheriff’s office staff have volunteered to attend.

“They want to come out and make fellowship with other officers and inmates’ families to try and better our community,” he said.

Anderson said they’ll have a tent set up outside the visitation center, along with a few games — chess, checkers, cards — guests can play. He said they’ve reached out to other law enforcement agencies throughout the county besides the sheriff’s office extending the invitation.

“I really don’t want to choose sides,” he said. “I don’t want to decide or pre-judge rightness or wrongness in these cases. I do want everyone to recognize that there’s a respect that needs to be had toward these families because they themselves are not guilty.”

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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