It’s a midwinter Monday night in Michigan, and a group of people are on their way to church.
In the middle of rural Ionia County, they walk past an abundant crop of barbed wire fences and are herded in small groups of five or six into a small sterile room.
They empty their pockets. No metal pens are allowed; only see-through plastic ones. They hold out their arms, walk through a metal detector, and then receive a full-body pat-down. Each is given a small black box with a bright-red button—it’s an alarm and locator device. Just in case.
The air is crisp and cold as they walk through the dark yard to be escorted into building 300, where a squadron of closed-circuit cameras monitors their every move.
The congregation is already assembled and facing the front; deep baritone voices sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” The latecomers find places to sit at tables among them.
So begins another weekly service of Celebration Fellowship Congregation at the Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, the only Christian Reformed church located entirely within a prison.
Every Monday night 30 to 35 inmates come to this makeshift sanctuary to study and worship, joined by 10 to 15 visitors from local Michigan churches who partner with them and commit to attending every week so that relationships can be built.
Everyone takes out a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, and for the next hour the congregants read through a chapter and talk through a list of questions that the inmates compiled.
When it comes time for the sermon, Rev. Rich Rienstra takes the pulpit. Rienstra was called by Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., to lead this new congregation. Rienstra’s work with jail ministries goes back to his first ministry in the 1970s when he was a young pastor fresh out of seminary. But prison ministry has a personal dimension for him; his own son is an inmate in a Michigan prison.
Rienstra explains that the ministry is training inmates to become leaders and prepare for life after prison. “We’re grooming the future elders and deacons of the church,” he said. “Our highest priority is making disciples.”
In many ways the worship service is like any other—people yawn occasionally and shift in their seats, they recite the Apostles’ Creed together. There’s even a children’s prayer. Though no children are present, many of the men have families outside the walls.
When it comes time for the offering, an older inmate named Mike sings “Jesus, Jesus, There’s Just Something About That Name.” The other inmates quietly join in the repeating chorus. An empty bowl is passed around to gather the inmates’ written prayers and hopes, as they have no money to give.
One of the visitors is Adria Libolt, a retired prison warden. “I never dreamed I’d want to come back [to a prison],” Libolt said. During the Bible study before the worship service, a prisoner seated at Libolt’s table asks her, “Do you consider yourself God’s friend?”
“Prisoners didn’t use to say things to me like that,” she explained. “It was really moving.”
Afterward, the visitors are free to go. They walk back to their cars and slowly drive away. Back behind the barbed wire, the Spirit of God remains.