Jim Tuinstra worked for many years helping ex-offenders stay out of prison. He assumed his work would end when he retired from a faith-based social services agency in Grand Rapids, Mich.
But soon he and a friend, Rev. Richard Rienstra, talked about starting a Christian congregation in a Michigan prison.
With support from Christian Reformed Home Missions and approval from the Michigan Department of Corrections, they created Celebration Fellowship Congregation at the 1,800-inmate Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.
Each Monday, prisoners who are members of Celebration Fellowship gather for an hour of Bible study in groups, followed by prayer and a worship service. Like any other church, they praise God through song and prayer and celebrate communion.
The church also involves worship volunteers who are members of partner churches in the Grand Rapids area.
“We saw [that] the Spirit is moving and that the congregation was being received as a powerful tool,” says Tuinstra. “This ministry shows the love of Christ in a situation where very little love and compassion exist.”
At Celebration Fellowship, the inmates take much of the responsibility for planning and leading services. A group of inmates serves as the church’s leadership council, with roles similar to elders and deacons.
Now led by Pastor Andy Hanson, Celebration is making an impact. At this year’s Easter service, 12 inmates were baptized.
Recently, a prisoner who is a member of the ministry’s leadership team was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. While being treated, still bound at the wrists, the prisoner was able to share the gospel and lead a corrections officer and a nurse to Christ.
Celebration has been such a positive force that the Department of Corrections asked for a new ministry to be started at Handlon Correctional Facility across the street. That ministry was to launch at a service on Sept. 10. Hanson will serve as pastor while continuing to serve at Celebration.