On Sunday, February 6, the members of Elmhurst (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church held a combined worship service with inmates of Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, even though the two congregations were separated by nearly a thousand miles.
Using the technology that was designed for inmates to make court appearances by video link, there was audio and video feed from the Angola chapel to the large screen at Elmhurst CRC. Simultaneously the Elmhurst congregation was present in Louisiana by audio/video feed.
Video of worship service at Angola prison simulcast with Elmhurst CRC
The two congregations could hardly be more different. Most of the 5,100 prisoners at Angola are there for life due to the nature of their crimes and the harsh sentencing laws in Louisiana. The prison, which is the largest maximum security facility in the United States, has a dark history of violence and abuse dating back to the American Civil War.
The Elmhurst congregation, by contrast, is an upscale group of 1,500 members located in an affluent suburb of Chicago.
At the worship service, singing and prayer were offered in a back-and-forth fashion, led first by the worship team in Angola, and then by the worship team in Elmhurst. The sermon was delivered to both congregations by Rev. Sidney Deloch, an inmate and pastor at Angola.
At the end of the service, a blessing was extended to both congregations from Angola and then Rev. Gregg DeMey, Elmhurst CRC's teaching pastor, led a blessing extended to the Angola congregation.
One of the people who helped open the service was prison warden Burl Cain. He has introduced significant changes that have led, among other things, to the establishment on the prison grounds of several chapels where Christian worship services are held on a regular basis.
Elmhurst CRC pastor Rev. Bert DeJong and some parishioners have been nurturing relationships at the prison for several years.
Reflecting on the intense and focused worship he experiences while visiting Angola, DeJong said he felt the “whisper of the Spirit of God” telling him that a shared worship service would benefit both communities. “I realized there was no technical reason it could not be done,” he said. He wrote a blog about the February 6 service.
It took several weeks of planning to coordinate the audio/video feeds at both locations. Then a blizzard causing flight cancelations delayed the arrival of the team traveling from Elmhurst to Angola.
Kyle Olson, technical director for Elmhurst CRC, said coordinating sight and sound was challenging, but “we’ll take lessons learned and do it even better next time.”