New Life Church, a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church found behind the walls of the Newton (Iowa) Correctional Facility, returned to worship with its pastor last December after a 33-month pause forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pastor Rick Admiraal and his wife Rose were grateful for what they called an “overwhelming reception” to their return. While they were absent, New Life members inside had the opportunity to be led by prison chaplains.
Now Pastor Admiraal meets with his inside congregants for an hour on Tuesday evenings in a small prison chapel. Much like a small classroom, the chapel fits just over 30 people and has one wall of bookshelves “with a pretty good collection of religious books including authors like Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, N.T. Wright, (and) C.S. Lewis,” Admiraal said. New Life Church’s worship service includes prayer and singing, which the men helped lead. Admiraal is leading the congregation through a sermon series, “Through the Bible,” where they learn from one book of the Bible each week, recently reviewing Habakkuk.
The chapel space is more spartan than the church’s previous setup in the prison’s gym, where Admiraal said that before 2020 he could “bring in a large praise team including acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboard and vocalists.” During that time the church was able to use a full immersion tub for baptisms, which also served as a communion table. Prior to the pandemic, members were able to go to the front and receive the communion elements. Now the men receive small disposable cups that contain grape juice and a wafer. Baptism is practiced differently as well.
In July New Life Church celebrated the baptism of 13 men, who “answered questions to indicate their faith in Christ and follow Him from this day forward,” Admiraal said. He then used water from a small container, cupping his hand to put water on each man’s head, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As with previous baptisms, New Life Church presented the men with certificates to mark the occasion. Admiraal said that many men keep this remembrance even after their time in prison and proudly share it.
This summer when New Life Church entered its yearly “Pedal for Prisoners” team in the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a returning citizen – an individual recently released from prison – was able to participate for the first time.
The event has been a major fundraiser for the church for the past 13 years, raising between $20,000 and $25,000 each year. While many outside members participate in support of the church, this was the first year that a returning citizen was on the Pedal for Prisoners team. Mike*, who was released in 2020, pedaled a section between Ames and Des Moines in the seven-day, eight-person event that covered 500 miles from Sioux City to Davenport.
Inside, a current staff shortage at the Newton prison and a statewide change in rules for the number of hours that volunteers can be present (due to violence at another prison in Iowa that led to the death of two staff) mean limits to the New Life Church.
Admiraal said they are waiting to “see what God will do” with their hope of using the Prison Release Center, a minimum-security facility right next to the medium security facility, in addition to the space they already have. Meanwhile, the church is “keeping the faith, doing it with others and with God,” Admiraal said.
*Out of respect for the difficulties returning citizens sometimes have returning to public life and at the request of Pastor Admiraal, we are not using Mike’s last name.