Initially, Tony Torrez wasn’t sure if prison ministry was his calling. He didn’t know how he would connect with the prisoners and felt he was already making a difference in the homeless community. However, after a volunteer at the Arizona State Prison at Winslow persuaded him to come to an orientation, he couldn’t say no to becoming involved. Tony and his wife MaryEllen ended up engaging in a volunteer career that spanned more than 23 years and changed countless lives.
Tony and MaryEllen Torrez got married in 1955 and have five children. They established their lives together in the small town of Williams, Arizona, in the early 1970s. Although Tony was a barber by profession, he always sensed that ministry was his calling. “For many of those years I ignored that calling, but God kept telling me that He wanted me to preach His Word, so I finally listened,” Tony said. He became an ordained minister in 1992, when he was in his 50s.
Answering God’s Call
After Tony got ordained and responded to the call to become involved with prison ministry, he established an in-prison church service on the weekends. He partnered with Prison Fellowship during this time, and he and his wife grew their ministry slowly. Eventually, they attracted participants through their approachable teaching and their genuine relationships with the prisoners. A few years into their volunteer work, 192 inmates showed up for their church service one week, representing nearly all the prison gangs at Winslow. “We told the prisoners that it was their service, and they all prayed together and shook hands,” said Tony.
During their busiest years, they led seven church services every other weekend in English as well as Spanish. “We had many healings during this time,” said Tony.
For Tony, one of the most memorable healings was during their English service one weekend. Tony called out to the congregation and asked if anyone wanted to accept Christ in their heart. At first no one responded, but then a man slowly made his way up to the altar. He had canes wrapped around both of his arms, and he wanted to surrender his life to Christ. Tony quickly performed the prayer for the man in Spanish and prayed that this man had truly become a disciple of Christ. Two weeks later, this same man showed up to Tony’s service again, and this time he had brought nine other men with him. All nine of the men received Christ in their heart that day, and Tony was moved. The original man with the crutches took Tony and MaryEllen aside after the service and told him that he had been afflicted with a flesh disease from his youth on. However, after he accepted Christ into his heart, his symptoms were healed. He no longer had to use his canes, and he became a changed man, both physically and spiritually. At this moment, Tony and MaryEllen realized how blessed they were to be able to work with these men, and they developed even more passion for their work with prison ministry.
“It has been a real blessing to work with these men,” said MaryEllen. Many of them came from dysfunctional families, and they marveled at Tony and MaryEllen’s strong marriage. One man asked Tony, “Isn’t it good to have variety? My father was married for over 40 years but to six different women!” Tony told the man that marriage is a pact for life, and that God intends us to grow with that person forever. MaryEllen said, “We are showing these men that a functional existence is possible. A few of them have kept in touch, and I’m pleased to say that they have taken Tony’s advice and married women who share in their ministry.”
Forming Meaningful relationships
Even though Tony and MaryEllen have had to make sacrifices to continue their ministry, they believe it was all worth it in the end. “These men are so grateful for our service, and they treat us with respect,” MaryEllen said. “We have been able to act as parental figures to many of these men. One class we asked them all, ‘How many of you knew your fathers growing up?’ and only two of the 48 men raised their hands,” MaryEllen said.
She believes that many of these men had never had the opportunity to succeed until taking their class and developing a lasting relationship with Christ. “They are very talented people when you give them the option to rise above their circumstances,” said MaryEllen.
Transformed by Christ’s Love
Although Tony and MaryEllen are no longer able to visit the prison due to health problems Tony faces, they are still active in ministering to their community. They hold Bible studies in their home twice a week and continue to spread the Gospel to whomever is willing to listen. Prison ministry shaped their lives, and they are grateful for the opportunity to serve with Prison Fellowship for nearly 10 years. “We saw Christ working in these prisoners’ lives, and it was humbling for us. We saw the light in their eyes, and we witnessed the hope that we, as complete strangers, were able to give them,” MaryEllen said. Many of the men they’ve worked with have gone on to start their own ministries in parts of Mexico.
“For a long time, these men cried in their hearts and no one answered. But now they have Christ,” MaryEllen said.