Ten years ago, I wrote a Banner article called “The Church Behind Bars” (Sept. 2005). When I begged for your mercy, asked for your forgiveness, and prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to join me and other followers of Jesus behind bars, I really didn’t know what to expect.
In that article, I presented readers with suggestions for partnerships with prisoners in the areas of church adoptions, missions, discipleship, and social programs. Through the formation of meaningful and restorative relationships, people on both sides of the prison walls are experiencing the forgiveness, mercy, and hope that can only be found in Christ.
In this article I want to highlight where God has richly blessed the church behind bars during the past decade—and how we as the church of Jesus Christ are being called to do even more in the areas of social ministry, restorative justice, and reform in our criminal justice system.
Following the model of the Cornerstone Prison Congregation in the South Dakota Penitentiary, Christian Reformed Home Missions has supported the development of congregations in Michigan and Iowa: Celebration Fellowship at three sites in Ionia, Mich., and New Life Congregation in Newton, Iowa.
Each week hundreds of imprisoned believers are joined by volunteers from congregations in the community around the prison to affirm one another as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom and equal members of God’s household.
At Celebration Fellowship’s inaugural worship service, Rev. Richard Rienstra, the pastor-developer of that congregation, proclaimed, “You are now an emerging church within our denomination. You have the responsibility to grow and develop your own disciples here, and we'll help you do that. This is your church, and you are welcoming us in.” This statement embodies the vision for church adoptions.
Visits from prominent members of the community have helped the church behind bars cultivate the mission field in prison. For example, many from beyond the prison congregation heard messages delivered by Rich DeVos, cofounder of Amway; and Kirk Cousins, quarterback for the Washington Redskins. After a study of his Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People, Mr. DeVos responded to an invitation to speak at Bellamy Creek, a correctional facility in Ionia. Upon hearing the testimony of one prisoner’s deliverance from a debilitating addiction to heroin, DeVos responded, “You see, we have something in common,” referring to his 1999 heart transplant and their shared relationship with Christ. “We both needed a change of heart.”
On a hot summer day in 2012, just months before his 24th birthday, Kirk Cousins visited the Life Change discipleship group at Michigan's Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, once called Gladiator School because young, violent offenders would fight for survival. He challenged the audience of more than a hundred prisoners and administrators with two questions: "Who will be your Master?" and "What will be your mission in life?"
In parting, Kirk encouraged his listeners with this reminder: "Your life is not over. God wants to redeem your life and use it for his glory and the good of others."
In 2011, Calvin Theological Seminary began offering graduate-level classes to prisoners at Handlon for personal enrichment, in response to applications sent to the seminary by several prisoners.
Last year, Calvin College placed a capstone on the Christian Reformed Church’s commitment to partner with the church behind bars when it launched the Calvin Prison Initiative, offering cohorts of prisoners gathered from around the state the chance to earn a bachelor of arts degree in ministry leadership.
As the seminary enters its 15th semester of classes, Celebration Fellowship its eighth year of cultivating worshiping communities, and as the Calvin Prison Initiative prepares to receive the freshman class of 2021, hundreds of people—prisoners, college students and professors, prison staff, Christian Reformed Church members—are being challenged to think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly as ministers of reconciliation wherever they are called to serve.
While celebrating these successes in church adoptions, missions, and discipleship, the church behind bars continues to search for new ways to implement social and restorative programs in the lives of broken people, communities, and systems.
Over the years, many of us in prison have asked for ways to be engaged as full citizens, rather than only as recipients of services. Clearing a path toward reconciliation will help us contribute toward healing the harm we have caused. We feel an obligation to make things right.
At Synod 2005, the Christian Reformed Church adopted the resolution from the Committee to Study Restorative Justice. "We support the restorative justice movement’s concern for the restoration of offenders. The path of return specified by restorative justice is a hard one. It involves taking responsibility for the wrong done, working to restore the harm where possible, and suffering whatever consequences result from the criminal offense. Restorative justice provides a clear path back to the community, which is often not the case in our criminal justice systems" (Acts of Synod 2005, 558).
Encouraged by this call to action, I joined family members and friends to organize Prisoners in Christ (PinC), a prison and justice ministry at Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Mich. This team has worked with prisoners, organizations, institutions, and government agencies to create opportunities for people to experience hope and healing after suffering from crime and incarceration.
PinC is now partnering with interested inmates, the Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan, the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, and Starting Up Now Business Solutions to organize its newest initiative, Network for Real Change, or Net4REAL.
Net4REAL is focused on providing opportunities for in-prison training in restorative practices and principles, equipping participants with tools on their journey toward reconciliation with God, themselves, and others. Net4REAL will also offer education in entrepreneurial skills, preparing students to enter the workforce or perhaps start their own small business once they reenter the community.
Ten years ago I had no idea that readers of my article would respond with so much support. Considering everything that has been accomplished thus far, would you agree that it’s time to believe that God plans to do much more through our partnership in the years to come?
When asked what he envisions for the future, Todd Cioffi, co-director of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), said, "My hope and my goal is that CPI can be a part of a complete transformation of Michigan's prison system. Over the years, I've become convinced that change begins from the grassroots with the ones who need real change the most. And then it involves real change for ‘average’ Christians. If change can take place with them, then we will perhaps see a movement that will be impossible to deny by those at the top. So here's to thinking 10 years out."
From my vantage point, the movement of God to bring healing to broken lives, communities, and systems has already begun. My prayer is that we keep working together until we hear our King say, "Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why. . . . Whenever you did one of these things for someone overlooked and ignored, that was me—you did it to me" (Matt. 25:34-40, The Message).
- What are some of the changes Rienstra recounts over the past decade in the church behind bars? What is the responsibility of “the average Christian” to those in the prison churches?
- What does discipleship look like in the context of incarceration?
- How can the concept of restorative justice help those who have done harm to provide a clear pathway back to society?
- Calvin College has started the Calvin Prison Initiative, which offers the opportunity for people in a Michigan correctional facility to earn a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership. How might this contribute toward the stated goal of changing the prison system from the inside out?
- Identify some opportunities for your congregation to become involved in some kind of prison ministry, if it does not already do so.