The praise team sings; participants hear special music and receive bulletins. Sounds like a typical Sunday-morning worship service--until you realize you’re inside the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
This special worship service Nov. 13 capped a two-day ministry event led by Rev. Steve Moerman. While the world and even most of the church often gives up on people sentenced to prison, Moerman has not.
He and his wife, Diane, are helping to plant a church within this prison. The congregation meets Friday nights for worship and Bible study. The ministry is supported by two classes (regions) of the Christian Reformed Church and by Christian Reformed Home Missions.
Other groups conduct Sunday services on a rotating schedule. But Moerman said there is a need for a more established congregation, giving inmates accountability and ownership.
The goal is an established church, including members that serve as officebearers, said Moerman. The emerging congregation also needs people from outside the prison willing to participate and have their membership at this church. But that’s down the road, said Moerman.
On this particular Sunday morning more than 20 visitors were on hand. “I think the [visitors] were surprised,” said Moerman. “When you actually start meeting some of the prisoners and you put a face on some of them, all of a sudden some of this separation falls away.”
Inmate Harvey Ernst, 40, attended the worship service. He has been in prison since age 23, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. “God didn’t put me in prison but allowed me to be here to become the person I am,” he said. “If I weren’t here I wouldn’t be alive. I was on a downward spiral to self-destruction.”
Ernst is grateful to have visitors come to worship with the inmates. “You’re letting us know that you’re the same as us, [even though] you’re out there and I’m in here.”
Ernst dismisses serious concerns regarding visitors’ safety. “We look after our visitors,” he said. &ldquoIf anything happened to you, it would shut down the program.”
Brenda Alons, a member of Bethel CRC, Edgerton, Minn., feels blessed to be part of this fledgling ministry. “There are Christians here. They made bad choices, but we do too,” she said.