Finding God behind Bars

Each Monday, the members of Celebration Fellowship begin their time together with an hour of Bible study in groups, followed by a time of prayer and then a worship service. They praise God through song and prayer and celebrate communion, just like any other church.

©iStockphoto.com/alxpinBut the members of this congregation are all wearing blue jumpsuits, because Celebration Fellowship worships behind the bars of Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Celebration Fellowship is one of only 17 prison congregations in the United States, and the only one of its kind in the Michigan prison system. "We don't do 'prison ministry'--we plant a congregation in the prisons," says Rich Rienstra, who recently retired as pastor of Celebration Fellowship. "[The inmates] are the church there right now. They're the ones who are praying for their fellow inmates. They have a lot of mission and vision--they are sensing what it means to be a church."

At Celebration Fellowship, the inmates take much of the responsibility for planning and leading the services, rather than a pastor and a few "outside" church members coming into the prison, providing a worship service, and leaving. Nine inmates serve as Celebration Fellowship's leadership council; their roles are similar to those of elders and deacons, though they're not installed as such. Rienstra meets with the leadership council each week to help them plan the worship service and the Bible study. The members of the leadership council are in charge of deciding what book or topic to study; the men began with Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life and have also studied the prison letters of Paul.

Carlinda Peoples, a student at Western Theological Seminary, hopes to start a prison congregation at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in partnership with Grace Reformed Church in Allen Park. With Rienstra's help, Peoples is negotiating with the Michigan Department of Corrections for approval and trying to find additional supporting congregations so she can begin developing the congregation when she graduates from seminary next year.

Celebration Fellowship was started in 2008 through the cooperative efforts of the RCA and CRC, and many area RCA and CRC congregations support it financially and with volunteers. "It was really important for a new congregation like this to have the power of the RCA and CRC community behind it," says Rienstra. He says the strong support from both RCA and CRC churches helped convince Michigan's Department of Corrections that the proposed congregation would be an asset in the prison.

Because Bellamy Creek is what's known as a re-entry prison--inmates are sent there when they are nearing their release date--another important aspect of Celebration Fellowship's ministry is supporting former inmates, known as returning citizens.

Rienstra stresses the importance of connections once the men leave the prison and reenter society. A strong connection and support from a local church can mean a successful return to society instead of behavior that results in returning to prison. "We're trying to address the need for help for the men when they come back into the community," he says. "That's one of the marks of the church being authentic. We don't just do something inside the walls [of the prison], but have support and a mission outside the walls."

Four men from Celebration Fellowship combined their personal testimonies to create a dramatic reading, "Even in the Darkest Place." Watch it on video at www.rca.org/darkest.

Celebration Fellowship's reentry services help connect the men with programs that can help them find employment, housing, transportation, health care, and other services that can be difficult to navigate. Supporting churches provide mentoring services and help link the men with recovery programs if necessary. They also organize lunches and other gatherings to help them continue to build connections.

One of the most important ways to build connections is to get plugged in to a local church. "They need the support base of a church. That's the biggest goal we provide," says Rienstra. "They can fit in and find hospitality and support at a local church."

Celebration Fellowship received a renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to help support its CONTACT (Celebrating Our Need to Adore Christ Together) program, a peer support group of former inmates who meet to encourage one another and grow in their faith.

Posted 3/15/12

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