For more than 15 years, work-release correctional inmates have been fixing cars for people who might not otherwise be able to afford repairs through the Charity Auto Repair, a ministry of Northern Lighthouse Church, a Christian Reformed congregation in Lincoln, Neb.
Response to the Charity Auto Repair, which is open Saturdays, has been so positive that the church is looking to expand the ministry. It’s the sense of family that inmates experience through the ministry that has helped the church attract new members, said Sam Keyzer, the church’s founding pastor.
“Inmates will come out, they maybe don’t have any church experience, but they experience church at a different level, through cooks that come in and just that sense of community, and then often will get drawn into the church,” said Keyzer. “It’s remarkable for the people it helps, that can’t afford work on their car, but it’s remarkable for the way it encourages people from community corrections and helps them get their feet back on the ground.”
Longtime Charity Auto leader Dan Pratt says the ministry is looking to build a three-stall garage on the church’s five-acre property, located near Interstate 80.
“We need at least one lift so we can get the car off the ground to do some of the work that we want to do,” Pratt said in a video that describes the ministry’s work and was shared with Classis Heartland, the regional assembly of churches to which Northern Lighthouse belongs.
Keyzer, who helped to establish Northern Lighthouse in the late 1990s and retired just last year as its pastor, is still a part of the community. He said most of the current repairs are done in a parking lot outside a small garage on the church property.
“It’s really hard in the winter. (The garage) has one opening; it’s narrow, it has no lifts,” Keyzer said. “So the guys work mostly in the parking lot. They’re out there in all kinds of weather.”
The Charity Auto Repair is just one example of Northern Lighthouse’s longstanding commitment to ministering to people who have been incarcerated. (See Northern Lighthouse Shines for Prison Inmates, August 2013.) It started with a letter Keyzer sent to the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln in the early days of the congregation, which he wrote with the encouragement of a friend who knew some of the inmates there.
“Fifty to 60 percent of our congregation has been locked up at one time,” Keyzer said.
The congregation has about 120 members. Keyzer’s son, Jon, recently accepted a call to succeed his father as the new pastor of the church.
The church offers a reintegration class for inmates that are seeking to transition back into society, teaching them life skills and offering mentoring.
“They build relationships with church members so that by the time they get out, they have a web of supportive relationships,” Keyzer said.
Charity Auto Repair operates on a no-fee-for-labor basis, but clients have to supply needed parts for the repair. If the customer is unable to bring in the needed parts, the garage reaches out to other agencies to try to secure them. Customers who are able to are encouraged to make a freewill donation
While waiting for their repairs to be done, customers can wait at a nearby house on the property that has been converted into a reception area. Church volunteers cook meals at the house to serve the mechanics and their clients, Keyzer said.
Efforts are underway to raise funds to build the new garage. Keyzer is hopeful that the project can be completed by this fall.
“We’ve got the plans in place. It’s been approved by an architect,” he said. “The next step is to get a (building) permit, but we can’t do that until we have the funds in place.”