I really began doing prison ministry when I was in high school. My friend Jack and I provided “special music” for our church’s ministry in the local county jail on Sunday afternoons. A couple of would-be preachers from our church “brought the Word,” in a good imitation of what we all had heard in our regular church service that morning. So why did we do that? I’m not sure we thought that much about it. It simply was something we did because we loved and served Jesus.
So fifty years later, our church was asked to be part of a group starting a church in a prison, which later became Celebration Fellowship. We thought much about it and concluded it was something we ought to do because we loved and served Jesus.
But why worship with criminals? Jesus answered that question long ago when he said, “…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). So Bible study and worship at Celebration Fellowship allows me to see Christ in action, to see the Spirit really working in the hearts and minds of people who have very different backgrounds and experiences. The apostle Paul wrote about all who believe, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).
Bob Otte (LaGrave Ave. CRC)
Outside Member Testimonial
When I volunteered to participate in the Celebration Fellowship Prison Congregation, I volunteered to attend the church inside the prison with no pre-conceptions or expectations, yet from the first visit on, I was pleasantly surprised! It was surprising and delightful to see how God changes lives inside prison walls, some who never experienced church on the outside. I now realize that whether outside or inside the prison walls, we all have family concerns, worries, regrets, and questions about life and existence, that all God’s children are more alike than not, and that we serve the same Lord. It lifts my spirit hearing testimonies of the brothers and observing their joy and delight in studying God’s Word! Nothing speaks to me more of this oneness than the Celebration worship in song, singing with the congregation, or listening to the choir. One night Fellowship member Brandon led the choir in singing “I Surrender All,” and I understood that, whether inside or outside the prison walls, to “ ever love and trust Him, in his presence daily live” is sought by Christ followers everywhere. Volunteering was not an easy decision. Indeed, I considered it for a year before finally making the commitment. I prefer being with one or more close friends and not a large group. For me it is tiring to be in a crowd. When I told my husband I’d signed up to volunteer for Celebration Fellowship in Bellamy Creek Prison, he said I was moving beyond my comfort zone, and he was right. But, I’m most thankful I answered the call of the Spirit prompting me to volunteer. I have learned so much and have found new friends and a rewarding worship community in the Celebration Fellowship Prison congregation.
Jan Mason (River Terrace CRC)
Outside Member Testimonial
My husband Chris and I recently began worshiping with the Celebration Fellowship community at Bellamy Creek. At our orientation in November, we were told why it’s important that people from the outside come to worship inside the prison: to help those incarcerated prepare for their transition back into society. Huh. I hadn’t considered that to be one of my reasons. Was that supposed to be my motive? It’s a good reason.
In fact, Chris and I travel to Ionia for Tuesday night church inside the prison because it’s important: God is there and the guys are there and the Word goes forth and worship happens and it’s beautiful. Maybe we’re doing something for them—encouraging them, preparing them, spurring them on—but they do the same for us, and they have so much to offer. We hardly know these guys, Yet they enfold us and we feel as though we are worshiping among friends.
Worshiping in prison is unique. Everyone’s stands on equal ground. The men at Celebration Fellowship who are serving time are CPAs, drywallers, pastors, mechanics, fathers, sons, orphans, and widowers. Everyone has a story, an important story. Yet the stories fade to the background as we gather for worship in the presence of the One True Living God who loves us each individually and equally.
In some ways, it’s humbling. We volunteers come in to do this nice service, and many of the men we worship with know more about Scripture than we do. They inspire us by their prayers and their conviction. They teach us about drawing near to God with authenticity and grace. What a gift—from God to us in community. What a gift indeed!
Heather Stroobooscher (Brookside CRC)
Outside Member Testimonial
In his book Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby writes:
“Knowing God does not come through a program, a study, or a method. Knowing God comes through a relationship with a Person. This is an intimate love relationship with God. Through this relationship, God reveals himself, His purposes, and His ways; and he invites you to join him where he is already at work. When you obey, God accomplishes through you something only he can do. Then you come to know God in a more intimate way by experiencing God at work through you.” (p. 2) God is at work in the Celebration Fellowship prison congregation and when I responded to his call to join him in this work he began to reveal himself in some surprising ways. Most significantly, I began to understand more clearly my own need for God’s grace and forgiveness. A very poignant moment for me was during a Communion Service at Bellamy Creek several months ago. I was sitting between a couple of inmate brothers who had done some significant crimes and I realized that our standing before God was all the same. Guilty as charged. Although my crimes are not as public, they are just as condemning before a holy God.
Ps. 103: 8-12 is just as applicable for me as it is for my inmate brothers.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
I am grateful that God is using this ministry to reveal himself to me and draw me closer to himself.