Michigan Church Welcomes Returning Citizens

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For people leaving correctional institutions, Seymour Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., provides a healing community that welcomes them as they return to society. The church is part of Healing Communities, a nationwide fellowship of churches that welcome and nourish returning citizens.

Larry Van Zee has been involved in reentry ministry for six years on behalf of Seymour CRC and Celebration Fellowship CRC. Celebration Fellowship is a congregation within a correctional facility. Van Zee serves on the outside as a mentor to returning citizens. As part of his role, he introduces returning prisoners to the Seymour congregation.

“The welcoming part is very significant,” Van Zee said. “This is especially true when it comes to returning citizens who have served time for sexual offenses.”

While the church welcomes ex-prisoners, it also tries to strike a balance between Christian hospitality and member safety. Van Zee said, “We, as Christians, must welcome them, realizing that we are also sinners, while at the same time providing a ‘safe church.’” The Michigan Department of Corrections requires returning citizens with Criminal Sexual Conduct (CSC) cases to be monitored by surveillance, including an unnoticeable GPS tether and an escort who accompanies them to restrooms.

Van Zee engages with returning citizens during the week, taking former prisoners out for lunch, accompanying them to the parole office, or picking them up and taking them to church on Sunday. Seymour reimburses Van Zee for ministry expenses.

Members of Seymour CRC play a less structured role with the returning citizens. Van Zee said, “Various people engage with returning citizens who attend Seymour. I may not know when a returning citizen is invited for dinner or taken out for coffee. [Bea Boorsma] is a prayer warrior on behalf of returning citizens. This is greatly appreciated.”

Three returning citizens have become members of Seymour CRC. All three had been charged with criminal sexual misconduct. In a promising start to their new lives outside the correctional facility, these men have told Van Zee they feel welcome at Seymour. 

Richard Johnson, a returning citizen who does not have a CSC case, has been attending Seymour CRC and meeting with “Chaplain Larry” for more than two years. “Chaplain Larry spent a lot of time with me in the Word,” said Johnson. “He’s a wonderful guy, and the church makes me feel welcome. It’s an all-Caucasian church, which I’m not used to. But being a black African American, I’m feeling like there’s no color in this church. That’s how welcome they make me feel.”

Johnson has been getting to know the people of Seymour CRC. “I know quite a few people but I don’t remember their names. But they remember mine, so to me that’s good enough.”

About the Author

Rachel Baarda is a freelance writer.

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