From Bill Walsh to Billy Graham, No One Can Doubt Joe Avila's Passion for Prison Ministry
Joe Avila has served Prison Fellowship® for over two decades in a wide variety of roles. In honor of his retirement, we sat down to talk about the history and highlights of his ministry.
Prison Fellowship: How did you come to work for Prison Fellowship?
Joe Avila: I was exposed to Prison Fellowship [while incarcerated in California] through Inside Journal®. It was maybe a month before Christmas 1993. It had something about Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™. And then I got to know the people at the central California Prison Fellowship office through correspondence.
When I was released in 1999, I did a few things for Prison Fellowship as a volunteer. I met Chuck [Colson] in 1999, and he was pretty instrumental to me getting hired. I went to work for Prison Fellowship on January 6, 2000, as an area director. Area directors supervised a small staff of field directors and a support specialist. I was responsible for all ministry including in-prison programs, evangelism, and Angel Tree®. I recruited all volunteers and churches for ministry.
Tell us about your career progression and priorities after you were an area director.
[I went from] area director to state director to regional director. At one point, I [oversaw] the western United States. We always had our [Angel Tree®] children covered 100%. That was because of [my team] and their enthusiasm. Of course, Angel Tree has always been close to my heart because of my kids being Angel Tree kids. I got involved with deliveries, so I got to meet a lot of great families.
I had a really great relationship with the Nevada and California Departments of Corrections. If [Prison Fellowship] wanted something, I would lobby for it, and [we] usually got it. One of my biggest events was at Valley State Prison for Women. I think at that event, we had 500 at each [of] two events. One of our board directors, Erika Harold, former Miss America, was there. We had great speakers, a great band. So, we kind of made the model for Hope Events.
Also, through my relationship with the late John Baker, the founder of Celebrate Recovery, we started the first Celebrate Recovery programs in California prisons in 2004.
You were instrumental in getting Angel Tree sports camps going. How did that happen?
In 2005, Bill Anderson (also a Prison Fellowship employee), and I wanted to do something for kids with sports. And Bill had actually played [football] for Stanford in the ‘'80s, and he says, "Why don't we take some kids to Stanford and do a football camp?"
Bill made an appointment with the football coach at Stanford. We were in the café [before the appointment] and Bill Walsh walks in—the Bill Walsh. The Super Bowl coach, the legend. Bill [Anderson] had played for him in college. Bill Walsh had just left the 49ers and was doing some consulting. We told him about Angel Tree. We told him about our kids. And he said, "Oh, we can do that. Come on."
So, he walked into our appointment with us and said, "Coach, this is what we want to do." And that's how the first [sports camp] got started. Our first one had about 75 to 80 kids. And the next year we had about 300 kids. And then James Ackerman came along and said, "Why aren't we doing it nationally?" So now it's all history.
What are your memories of Chuck Colson?
I was fortunate to know him really well [and would] travel and kind of be his opening act. At events, I would go up and tell my story before he came up for the keynote. I did that a hundred times, I guess, all over the country. Anybody that can open for Chuck, that's a privilege. He was just warm, warm person. One of the greatest guys I've ever met. Chuck had a very big interest in people who had formerly done time. They had a special place in his heart, and I felt that I did too.
I know you also had a chance to work with Billy Graham. What was that like?
Billy Graham was having crusades in central California, and me being a director of Prison Fellowship, they asked me to have a small in-prison type thing. It just started, and I was thinking big. I started meeting their leadership and said, "We should probably join forces. I don't know if I can get it done, but Chuck can get it done." And Chuck wanted it.
We ended up partnering with the Billy Graham Crusade, and we had 45 Hope Events (as we call them now) in nine days. I would think we had 20,000 attendees, maybe. We had boxes and boxes of response cards.
Billy came to town to have a small banquet with the directors of the different organizations. My wife and I were there. Billy was very quiet [and] very warm. And [we had] a great conversation.
Do you have a favorite role, as you look back?
My favorite role would be evangelism because it's involved with all of them. I'm not the person that'll go up on a stage and do the invitation—but I'm always the catalyst to making that happen. I think pastors have great talent to present the Gospel where it really counts. But again, I still think I have the responsibility of doing that. So winning souls to Christ is my favorite role at Prison Fellowship because it happens almost on a daily basis.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Probably I'm the most proud of actually growing [Prison Fellowship]. The program that we were representing then was not what we have now. I think we're in a better place now. And for me to say that is humbling because I haven't been involved in [all of] it. I haven't been involved in the Academy as much. But I think that's what I'm most proud of because I helped lay the groundwork for [its] foundation.
What is one hope you have for Prison Fellowship?
Thomas à Kempis says, "Therefore, continue what you are doing. Labor in my vineyard, and I will soon be your reward." And that sums up Prison Fellowship. We're going in the right direction. We just continue to labor in God's vineyard. And we know what the reward is going to be.
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