Ministry within the prison congregations of the Christian Reformed Church looks different as correctional facilities, like other kinds of institutions, are closed to visitors and non-essential staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Visitors were officially locked out on March 10 or 11, and the last of the chaplains (myself included) were locked out March 13 and 14," Pastor Doug DeGroot from Cornerstone Prison Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., told The Banner in an email message April 17. But opportunities have come from the alternatives. DeGroot said instead of meeting in person in the prison each Friday night, they are providing DVDs for the inmates to watch on the prison television channel during regular chapel times. On Easter morning, the pre-recorded service was played at 5:30 a.m. for the inmates.
Additionally, several families of Cornerstone members reached out to DeGroot and his team to request that they post their services on YouTube so they could, in effect, worship with their loved ones. (Prisoners within institutions do not have access to the internet.)
While this is an unexpected expansion of their ministry outside of the prison, DeGroot said he’s seen an expansion of reach inside as well. Rather than being limited to reaching whomever signs up to attend chapel on Friday evenings, their service can now be watched by every inmate whose cell has a television in it.
At New Life Prison Community in Newton, Iowa, the situation is tougher. Pastor Rick Admiraal said all activities were suspended and all visitors barred from the prison as of March 10. Though they were able to provide an Easter service on DVD to be shown in the prison chapel, they have not been able to provide any other resources or even communicate by letter with their parishioners.
Admiraal said he has been in contact with the prison’s chaplain, who is an employee of the institution. “The chaplain is typically part-time, but his hours have been expanded due to the great need and the absence of any religious or educational volunteers at this time,” Admiral explained. “On Easter he conducted five hour-and-a-half-long services, which had a limit of 15 people per service. He was exhausted (afterwards).”
“We hope the Easter DVD we sent lifted the guys’ spirits and gave them encouragement,” Admiraal said. “But overall, we feel quite disconnected from our incarcerated brothers. The best thing we can do right now is to pray and wait on the Lord for restoration at the right time.”