Tag Archives: Joe Avila


This morning when I checked my blog, the automatic scripture was Hebrews 13:3, Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners.  I immediately thought of our dear Thelma, who lived and breathed prison ministry.  Following is the story about her that appeared in Ebenezer and Ninety-Eight Friends.  May we follow in Thelma’s steps, as Janice Little, Frank Hicks, Joe Avila and many others have done. 





“Pray for Thelma.  She’s back in prison.” 

            Why would this nice lady be in prison?  I began to study the ups and downs of Thelma’s life.

            Her mother had a stroke when Thelma was seven.  This left her having to do most of the household chores.  Not an easy childhood. 

            At age eight, she heard a Chinese preacher, Mun Hope, at camp.  He had the children fill in their names in John 3:16:  For God so loved ….She immediately inserted Thelma and accepted that love. 

            She lived on Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota where her father taught school and was a government agent.   I’m sure she got lonely.    

            After high school, Thelma had the opportunity to go to Emmaus Bible School in Chicago. 

            During this time, she went to Lake Geneva Youth Camp as a counselor.  There, she met Gil Hernandez.   She did possess a little mischievous streak:  Icing a cake for the other counselors with Ex-Lax.  Surely this didn’t qualify as questionable character.  Apparently Gil didn’t think so.  He married her.  Maybe this was because he didn’t eat any of the cake. 

            Gil and Thelma took on their first formal ministry in Colorado Springs, where they became house parents to teen-aged boys at a Christian home for children.   Though this was exciting for Thelma, I’m sure it was a challenging assignment.  Along with this, they had already begun to raise their own family. 

            They then were ready to go to Mexico.  She again rose to the challenge.  She soon adjusted to the new culture.  They taught children and planted churches in Mexico for 21 years. 

            Finally, God led them to Fresno, where Thelma met the Rolen family—a lovely family.  Well, then there was Janice.  Here, I think, is where the path turned for Thelma.  Yes, I’m sure of it.  Janice, the Rolen’s daughter, is the one who led her on this path to prison. 

            Janice Little introduced Thelma Hernandez to Austin Morgan and Prison Fellowship.  Thelma at first wondered aloud, “why me?  I don’t know anything about prisoners.”  Her thinking soon changed.  Prison ministry became her most passionate and fruitful calling.  For 14 years, Thelma went into prisons all over the San Joaquin Valley.  Her consistent service and her huge smile showed the prisoners she loved them.  Her open Bible showed them Who loved them more.  

            All the way my Savior leads me.   God led Thelma from an Indian reservation to teaching prisoners in the center of California. 

            Cheers each winding path I tread.  Her path wound by way of Chicago, Colorado, Mexico and Central California.  Wherever she went, she had a glow about her.   

            Gives me grace for every trial.  Thelma did have real trials:

  • Having to care for a family when she should be playing with dolls.
  • Going to a country with a different culture while raising four children.
  • Cancer.

I knew Thelma only during her prison years and her cancer years.  She seldom spoke of the cancer, only of the people behind bars whom she’d grown to love.  During share time, we saw the tears:  “Please pray that there won’t be a lock-down this week at Avenal.”  “Please pray the women at Chowchilla will be receptive.” 

            Feeds me with the living bread.  Her children remember waking up and going to the kitchen.  Their mom was sipping coffee, reading her Bible and then writing letters.  This was a habit for Thelma, not a sometimes occurrence. 

            Jesus led me all the way.  On July 4, 2007, Thelma received her independence.  On July 9, in a packed auditorium, we honored Thelma and the God she took to the prisoners.  


…I was in prison and you came to visit me.  Matthew 25:36C


Filed under Ebenezer and Ninety-Eight Friends, Prison Ministry