The Church Behind Bars

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No one knows why things went so wrong.

 

All the prerequisites for success were in place. I was adopted by a young couple—recent graduates of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. They dreamed of shaping and propelling their son into a life full of wonder and hope.

Sadly, things didn’t go according to plan.

My life as a teenager revolved around drugs, crime, and broken relationships. I was married and divorced, became the father of three children, and served five years in prison—all by the time I turned 23. When things couldn’t seem to get any worse, they did. In 1995 I committed armed robbery and was sentenced to serve a life term in the Michigan prison system.

Then, on the evening of Dec. 12, 2002, I had a conversation with a fellow prisoner who spoke to me about the love of God, the realities of heaven and hell, and the availability of salvation through Jesus Christ. I returned to my cell with the realization that I was guilty of a wasted life and rebellion against God. Sin had been my burden, and its weight was on the verge of breaking me. With nowhere left to run, I wept quietly in the dark while confessing my sin and guilt before God’s throne of grace.

The Prison Church

The church behind bars began with the apostles of Christ who preached the gospel while they were imprisoned. The apostle Paul, who spent years in prison, became chief cultivator of the church behind bars as he witnessed to both guards and prisoners. Since then, for nearly 2,000 years, free and imprisoned believers have continued laboring together with much blood, sweat, and tears to advance the good news of Jesus within prisons.

Today hundreds of thousands of Christian live in jails and prisons throughout the world. In the United States the prison church is estimated at 165,000 members. Although the prison church has no denominational affiliation, at every opportunity brothers and sisters gather informally to speak God’s Word to each other, pray together, and find comfort in recognizing Christ’s presence among our fellowship. This is how we survive.

In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all of his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evil doers and mockers. For this cause he had to come—to bring peace to the enemies of God. Therein is his commission, his work.” Members of the church behind bars live with the constant reminder of why God sent his Son into the world and for whom Jesus gave his life. These members of Christ’s body live in a concentrated area of scoffers, mockers, and haters of God. Nevertheless, the love of Christ enables us to endure our hostile world and fulfill Christ’s commission.

A Big Mission Field

According to the Christian Reformed Church’s Committee to Study Restorative Justice, more than 35,000 people are currently incarcerated in Canada and more than 2.1 million in the United States, many of whom maintain family ties with the 7 million North American children who have at least one incarcerated parent. Almost 90 percent of the prison population will return to society; more than 600,000 prisoners are released annually. Two of every three prisoners released will re-offend within three years. What can be done about these startling statistics?

The body of Christ can join with the prison church as an ally in spreading the gospel. The prison church needs to be nurtured through discipline and the sacraments. John Calvin observed that wherever the marks of the church are evident—preaching of the Word, celebration of sacraments, and practice of church discipline—inevitably the surrounding culture will be changed. Unfortunately, within most prisons there is no discipline, immorality is prevalent, and the sacraments are not available. Thus that promise of change is left unfulfilled.

What can be done to mobilize the church behind bars to be an effective partner in ministry with the free church? There are four areas that need to be addressed: church adoptions, discipleship, missions, and social programs. The prison church needs to be placed in a family and given an identity (adoption). It needs to be nurtured (discipleship) so that the aim of every member will be to lead others into the fold (missions). Also, because many open wounds have gone unattended and unhealed, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration must be encouraged and facilitated between offenders and victims (social programs).

I believe the Holy Spirit is leading the body of Christ in our generation to a point of transition. The church behind bars has been gifted to fulfill a significant purpose, and the church as a whole is called to respond. To do this, the church is given a mandate, a clue, and a reminder. The mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the good news” (Mark 16:15). The clue: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:36). The reminder: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners” (Heb. 13:3).

As a prodigal son of the Christian Reformed Church, I humbly return home with a multitude of redeemed brothers and sisters in tow. We are the ones who have accumulated the greater debt. We have sinned against God, committing great offenses against his people, and we are unworthy of any forgiveness. Yet as Paul wrote, “Christ came into the world to save sinners—of whom [we are] the worst. But for that very reason [we were] shown mercy so that in [us], the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15-16).

We beg for your mercy and attention. My fervent prayer is that you will labor together with us, in Christ, for the ministry of his gospel until his glorious return. Please pray for me and for my brothers and sisters in the faith who are imprisoned, that we may boldly, and with perseverance, proclaim our faith. We commit to pray without ceasing that you may be strong to do the same.

You Can Help

Christians for Prisoners & Prisoners for Christ (CFP & PFC) is a collaborative effort founded by Troy Rienstra and other Christians who seek to support the prison church. Members of the Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Saginaw (Mich.) Community CRC have become involved in the work by supporting a bimonthly newsletter called “Our Generation.” In addition, Rev. Tymen Hofman, a retired CRC pastor under whose ministry Troy was baptized, recently wrote about the challenges of supporting the prison church in an article in the Christian Courier (“Troy—Called to Prison Ministry”). The work of CFP & PFC includes prison church planting, exploring how local churches can adopt and support prison churches, developing libraries, seeking restorative justice and victim impact initiatives, and advocating for prison reform and prisoner re-entry projects. For past newsletters and suggestions for how to become involved, visit www.christiansforprisoners.org or e-mail rienstraog@hotmail.com.

For more ways to help the church behind bars or support the cause of restorative justice, see below.

More Ways to Help

Among its many activities, the Christian Reformed Church's Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action seeks to promote lasting healing and restoration for both victims and offenders. This site includes links to additional, related resources.

In addition, the CRC recommends the following prison ministry for support:
Crossroad Bible Institute
P.O. Box 900
Grand Rapids, MI 49509-0900
Ph. 616-530-1300

About the Author

Troy Rienstra is a member of Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was sentenced to life imprisonment as an accessory to armed robbery in 1995 and has been imprisoned at several facilities in Michigan, recently at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater and as of May 19, at Muskegon Correctional Facility. While awaiting parole, he is designing curriculum for Network for Real Change. For more information, visit networkforrealchange.org.

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