Cordarrell Sims joined two other inmates in performing the popular praise song “Agnus Dei” during worship at Celebration Fellowship inside the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.
Although the soft-spoken inmate finds it hard to speak in front of big groups, Sims had no problem standing at the microphone and adding his rich bass voice to the song by Michael W. Smith.
“Allelulia, allelulia, for the Lord God Almighty reigns,” sang Sims, who credits Celebration Fellowship with giving him the confidence and opportunity to sing during the weekly service.
“You are holy, holy are you, Lord God almighty, worthy is the Lamb, worthy is the lamb.”
Participating in the singing were other inmates, along with Andy Hanson, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church prison congregation, and a host of volunteers from West Michigan CRC congregations and other churches.
Then, as the praise song finished in the auditorium of the educational building, a burly inmate called out, “Ooh Rah for Jesus!”
Other inmates responded by cheering loudly and waving their hands.
This was Monday night worship, one of three Celebration Fellowship services that take place every week at two different facilities at the Ionia prison complex.
“Being able to worship here is such a blessing to me,” said Ellie De Vries, a volunteer from Providence CRC in Cutlerville, Mich., who was on hand for the service. “We’re able to come and join in what Jesus is already doing.”
History of the Prison Church
In 2002, Troy Rienstra, a member of Church of the Servant (COS) CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., and an inmate at Handlon, felt called and was later affirmed by COS to share the gospel with his fellow inmates.
As time went on, Rienstra and others sought permission to start a church behind bars. In 2007, acting on a proposal by Christian Reformed Home Missions, the Michigan Department of Corrections issued a memo of understanding to launch a pilot congregation at Ionia.
After that, Troy Rienstra’s father, Rev. Rich Rienstra, was asked to pastor the emerging congregation. The church met initially only at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility across the street from Handlon.
Slowly, over time, the congregation expanded to three sites—two at Bellamy Creek and the one at Handlon—and has evolved to where Celebration Fellowship now has 125 to 150 inmates attending services every week.
“This has been a wonderful experience,” said Mark Muller, who has been volunteering at the prison since 2008 and currently serves as chair of the Celebration Fellowship church council.
“We have been out here doing church, gathering with believers to hear the message, share the Word, take the sacrament, and have fellowship,” said Muller, a Grand Rapids real estate developer.
“Many of these men have become friends to us,” added Muller. “They are a wonderful group of guys to work with, an eclectic group, to say the least. They bring viewpoints I haven’t gotten in over 50 years in other CRC churches.”
Likely by September, Celebration Fellowship will become the second officially organized CRC congregation. Currently, Cornerstone Prison Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., is organized, while the other CRC prison congregation, New Life Prison Church in Newton, Iowa, is not.
In order for Celebration to become organized, 30 people who are members of other CRC congregations need to join. That number has been nearly reached, and then Classis Grand Rapids East needs only to complete the paperwork.
These people who have signed on will hold membership in both their current and the new prison congregation.
“I think that by becoming a stand-alone church, it helps to legitimize the ministry,” said Glen Van Andel, coordinator of development for the steering committee that has helped the congregation go through the sometimes challenging steps needed to become the CRC’s first organized prison church in Michigan.
“For the CRC itself, it is important to see that prison ministry is a front-and-center part of who we are as a denomination, because this is what Jesus called us to do—to welcome and serve our brothers and sisters in prison.”
Preparing for Worship
On the Thursday evening before the recent Monday service, a leadership team of Handlon inmates met in a sweltering classroom with Pastor Andy Hanson to go over plans for worship.
Two fans pushed out warm air as one inmate read through and practiced the Call to Confession, while another practiced reading Genesis 12:1-9, in which God calls Abraham to be the father of a great nation.
They talked briefly of holding the Lord’s Supper at the upcoming service and then reviewed materials Hanson provided to use in small-group gatherings before the service. The topic focused on how the makeup of a family system can play into a person’s addiction to drugs or alcohol or other things.
After they finished their preparations, several of the men spoke of what Celebration Fellowship means to them. Cordarrell Sims mentioned how being part of the church was helping to break down his shyness.
“Celebration helps me to learn to speak slower and make eye contact. Celebration is paving the way for me to have faith in myself to do ministry when I leave here,” he said.
Sims also said he is attracted to Celebration because it has an ecumenical spirit. It is open to all inmates and “doesn’t talk bad about other religions. It just focuses on Jesus.”
Michael Melbert, the inmate tapped to read the confession at Monday’s service, said he is put off by volunteers who come into the prison believing it is their job to save the prisoners.
“Celebration Fellowship doesn’t do that; it works with us, which is a most beautiful thing,” he said. “Guys in here are blessed that they give us the opportunity to let the world see our light shine, instead of quenching our spirit.”
In many ways the volunteers who come in week after week become friends and “affirm you as a person and not as an inmate. They help you separate from what is going on out there on the yard and in your cell,” added Michael Duthler.
Along with attending Celebration Fellowship, Duthler is part of a newly approved bachelor degree in ministry program being offered at the prison by Calvin College with the assistance of Calvin Theological Seminary. Duthler grew up Catholic and has a couple of reservations about Celebration’s Reformed beliefs and practices. Yet he loves the weekly worship, especially the sermons.
“When we have our services, the preaching is always relevant to this environment,” said Duthler.
Leaving the Old Behind
Hanson, who has been serving the congregation since Richard Rienstra left five years ago for another ministry, said he works hard to prepare sermons that tie the regimented life the prisoners face into the new life they can find in God.
He did this at the recent Monday service by preaching on the passage in Genesis in which Abraham (Abram) was called by God out of his familiar home and sent, along with his family, to an unknown place where nothing was familiar or predictable.
“God called him to leave nearly everyone he knew behind, and he would be surrounded by strangers where he was going,” said Hanson. “God turned his world upside down. . . .”
Pausing for a moment, Hanson looked around the auditorium and then asked: “Is there anyone in this room who knows what that is like, to be ripped from one life and put into another?”
Heads nodded, and a few inmates said “Amen.”
Prison, Hanson went on, is the very definition of being pulled out of the familiar and ending up where “you are just as likely to hear put-downs as you are something nice. It is a place where you want to do the right thing, but figuring out what that is can be hard.”
Yet, as difficult as prison life is with all of its disruption, he said, [the congregation] can hold onto hope—because they are the spiritual descendants of Abraham and have a calling.
“You are called into this place as ambassadors to share God’s love and grace with those who need to hear it,” he said. “How can God’s love be shared in prison unless it is shared by prisoners?”
On the Way Home
About a dozen volunteers from a handful of CRC and non-CRC congregations attended the service that night. Hanson drove three of them back to Grand Rapids in his van.
Among them was Russell Brubaker, a member of Ada Bible Church and a psychiatrist who once worked at Handlon. He says as a volunteer he occasionally has the chance to see and talk with inmates with whom he worked—and he appreciates the opportunity.
Coming to the prison nearly every week is an “answer to prayer and a blessing,” since he loves music and it has given him a chance to play guitar and bass in the prison praise band, he said.
Riding along as well was Barb Leegwater, a member of COS who has been making the weekly trip for nearly eight years. “I have seen God’s love poured out to people so different from me, and yet I’ve realized we are all the same and that God loves us because of who we are.”
Gary Wainwright, a member of Oakdale Park CRC, retired a year ago after working as a human resources director for a manufacturing company. He learned of the prison ministry by talking with Hanson.
“It is just a joy for me to go,” he said. “We have a chance to witness to how God works in the lives of others and in our own lives.”
Nearing Grand Rapids on the 80-mile round trip, Hanson said he is grateful to work with men who come from some hard places and have committed some serious crimes. While he might wonder and sometimes talks with them about what they are in prison for, that is not his focus, he said.
“By God’s grace, it is really a privilege to be called to a ministry to work with these guys. I love what God is teaching me through them,” he said.
“These guys may be felons, but what is important is that they are really my brothers in Christ.”