History of Celebration Fellowship
In 2002, Troy Rienstra, a son of the Church of the Servant (COS) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an inmate at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, was called by God and later affirmed by the COS council (2006) to serve as an ambassador of the gospel while serving time in prison. About this same time, Troy’s parents, Rich and Carol Rienstra, who were members at COS, began Christians for Prisoners and Prisoners for Christ (CfP). This organization became the team through which Troy and other believing inmates connected to the outside about the needs and gifts of the indigenous “church behind bars.” Through CfP, Troy and others were given support to live out their faith in prison.
One of the constant pleas from Troy and others was for support and advocacy from the outside, for an organized “church behind bars” that would be led as much as possible by inmates. Based on the Prison Congregation of America’s (PCA) ecumenical, denominationally supported “inside-outside” model, CRC Home Missions proposed a pilot prison congregation to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in 2007. MDOC director Patricia Caruso authorized a memo of understanding to partner the pilot inmate church with the outside church at a designated reentry prison in Ionia. Along with moral and spiritual growth, the goal was to build mentoring relationships with outside volunteers to facilitate successful reentry into the community.
When initiated, it was understood that “a seasoned, ordained clergy would be working half-time on the inside and half-time developing, educating, and guiding a supportive reentry network in the surrounding area.” In 2008, COS was authorized by CRC Classis GR East to call Rich Rienstra as the pastor of the emerging church, named Celebration Fellowship by the first inside leadership team at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility.
Under Rich’s leadership, the ministry flourished, with strong support from outside volunteers and churches and an effective inside leadership team. Rich’s gifts for networking and advocacy were particularly useful in organizing and promoting the ministry through the summer of 2011, when Rich retired to focus more of his time on reentry programs.
In the fall of 2011, Andy Hanson, then a recent Calvin Seminary graduate, was hired to continue the inside ministry at Bellamy Creek. During the spring of 2012, the Michigan Department of Corrections via Chaplain Leslie requested we plant a second church, this one in Handlon Correctional Facility (just across the street from Bellamy Creek). Previously, at the request of Troy Rienstra and several other inmates, Calvin Theological Seminary had begun offering seminary courses at Handlon in 2010, and this provided a strong source for inside leadership team members for the new congregation, which was launched in the fall of 2012.
An opportunity to plant a third congregation (Bellamy Creek, Level 1) developed in late 2013. This congregation is being serviced with the help of a Calvin Seminary Intern.