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
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
I was a straight up LOSER! For over 40 years I have not really been a FREE MAN. I’ve been in and out of jails and prisons or on parole. I was filled with hatred, I was vindictive, and I had no respect for anyone, especially the law. I was anti-social to say the least. I only care about ME! The only time I ever went to church was when I broke into one to steal what I could.
In about December 2011 I met a guy named Jim who was a member of Celebration Fellowship prison congregation. He explained to me that we are all born with a sin nature. Wow, that sure made me think! I began to wonder how a man like me could get into heaven. Jim explained how Jesus Christ paid the price for my sins. ‘But,’ I responded, ‘I have even stolen from churches!’ Jim again reminded me that, ‘Jesus paid for your sins.’
I cried out to God to just forgive me. I was not sure I was forgiven for a while, but the more I read the Bible, the more I saw the truth: I was saved and forgiven!
In June of 2012, Pastor Andy of Celebration Fellowship, a real church we have in prison, baptized me. Somehow, being baptized in front of all those people made me feel I was a new man and now dozens of people knew it too.
Since I became a Christian I can’t wait for church services. Hearing the Bible being preached recharges my batteries. My vulgar language is now sweet with God’s Word. I’ve written some Christian songs, I play my guitar and I smile a lot. Here are a few words from one of my songs I called “SCARS.”
‘Out from a world of sin that tore my soul apart, with just one touch of your nail scarred hands, you’ve healed my broken heart.’
I hope my true story will touch your heart enough to let Jesus into your heart!
Inside 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
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.
Glen Van Andel (Brookside CRC)
Outside Member Testimonial
My name is Adam. I was born May 18, 1988 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am an aspiring screen writer, film maker, and song writer. I really don’t want to own this story, but it owns me. This is a reality I cannot conquer, the characters in the plot I cannot craft or manifest. This is my life.
At age eighteen I found myself sitting in the Kent County detective’s office, my ankle chained to a rather fine wooden desk. It was indicative of a thief’s fate. Questions regarding the fraudulent use of stolen credit cards and possession of jewelry stemming from several home invasions were being thrown at me. Finally, a question was asked about a safe the size of half a refrigerator that was found in a field in the Forest Hills area where I was born and raised. I am a petty thief. I am broken.
I grew up in a bubble. My mother dropped out of college due in part to the depression that has been a constant part of her life. Her family abandoned her because she didn’t meet their standards for success and blame many of my problems on her. My father was born and raised in the Grand Rapids area and graduated from Michigan State University with a pre-law degree. My parents married, divorced, remarried, and divorced again before I turned seven.
Growing up I spent much of my time with my grandpa and grandma who lived on what my family called a “ranch.” They had two horses, two ponies, a swimming pool, and two ponds on forty acres of land. It was my heaven on earth that became just another piece of property when my grandmother passed away from an extended struggle with cancer and the land was sold. Her loss was huge for me because she was my “mother” during those troubled years with my family.
This is the moment I began to change. As a loner in school, I was trying to fit into the box and find my future. Although very athletic, I didn’t care for sports and would skip school, sleep in my car during class, and acted like I was cool. I remember walking up to my history teacher’s desk, as she stood in front of class, setting my book down and walking out in front of everyone. I cringe with regret now, but I felt so alone. Eventually, rather than work for money I started stealing to support my drug habit.
Maybe it was the fact that I went to school with a bunch of millionaires. I felt like I had to fit into this perfect little mold and I couldn’t do it. It was about, “How big is your house?” “Who is your family, and what do they do?” “How much money do they have?” I’d see one kid drive to school every day in a gold Mercedes Benz SUV. And even though I was not poor, according to those standards I was.
I was the kid of divorced parents, the poor kid, and the stoner. I drove a Ford Taurus my dad had given me but from my perspective the school parking lot was filled with brand new Hummers, Range Rovers, and Lexus Prestige Convertibles. I lived in a $180,000 home off of Cascade Woods and Thornapple River but I couldn’t match the $500,000 or multimillion dollar homes many of my peers came from.
I remember being made fun of because my house was “small.” Although my family and I were blessed, I was traumatized by being surrounded by such exclusive, image-savvy, snobby kids. I did not fit in. I wanted to be accepted so badly that I turned away from the person I truly was, the actor, the writer, the artist, the performer, the athlete.
Somehow the thief on the cross is an analogy of my early life. I was intrigued with thievery. I stole, and as crazy as that sounds now, felt that it could be a career. I stole from school, my family, and many other places. In 9th grade I was slicing checks out of my dad’s unopened boxes of checks. Then, after several expensive items were stolen from the high school, the Sheriff’s department set up a sting and I was charged with two felony counts. I transferred to a private school and was placed in drug rehab.
The following a year, after completing my rehab, I entered another high school as a sophomore but it was more of the same. I had learned nothing, except to steal outside of school. I was failing almost every class and had no interests. When I did try I found I could get an “A” but I was too busy partying and having “fun” to make it a habit. The only high point was a short stint on the track team that eventually won a State Championship. The first place finish in the 100 Meters was my last race before I was declared ineligible due to poor grades. Without much incentive, I dropped out of school with nothing to do but mow my lawn once a week. When I did manage to land a job I’d quit soon after.
At eighteen, I was living with my father, was a high school dropout, unemployed, and a thief. My dad put the car in my name because he was afraid I would hurt someone and he would be held liable. I was living in a fantasy world but it was fast coming to an end. In my younger years I had learned that some kids would go “garage shopping” for alcohol that was stored in a garage refrigerator. I began to realize that most places were not locked. There may have been a full keypad on the garage door but the side door was seldom locked.
I started sneaking into houses and stealing about as much as I could including jewelry and electronics. I dressed in black dress pants, a Northface fleece, gloves, and a hat. I was a lost little eighteen year-old boy.
It didn’t take long before I was caught in the middle of the night in a gated community. Although I am a soft-spoken, shy person who never committed a violent crime, the law does not discriminate. I did not realize how bad I was at the time and how my actions would land me in prison, along with many other violent criminals. I thought, “Because it’s me, it’s who I am, it’s not that bad. I have interests, love nature, and animals. I can’t go to prison. That’s only in the movies, only for murderers, and people who use guns.”
Due to my age, I was given a second chance and placed on probation for three years, along with a complete tether to my father’s house. Unfortunately, I did not abide by the curfew, my probation was revoked, and I was sentenced to five years in prison. This was the worst day of my life. I cried and cried as I was shackled around my wasted, ankles and hands, like a violent murderer. As I stood before the judge, I clung to a small Gideon Bible that was nestled between my shackled hands.
Later, at the Kent County Jail, I had a panic attack and pleaded with God to take this pressure, this surreal hurt from me. I had been to jail for 42 days on a marijuana charge but that seemed like nothing compared to what I was facing now.
When I arrived at prison, there was nothing anyone could do about it. Suddenly, just like that, my family, my school, my teachers, my community, and all the people I knew were gone. My childhood, my happiness, my life, and my innocence were all irrelevant. The word “scared does not do justice to my feelings. I was a skinny 19-year old, white kid with braces and hair that covered my ears and forehead. I was not exactly intimidating. Murders and all the “bad guys” come through the same doors. I had grown up going to church every Sunday but God became real to me now.
When I arrived, the first officer I saw uncuffed me and demanded my little Gideon Bible that I still clutched between my hands. I had been squeezing it and sleeping with it like a security blanket ever since I had been taken to jail. “Give me that” he demanded, as he snatched if from my fingers and ripped the pages out in front of me and began to strip search me. My bubble had just begun to burst.
God was the only one that who knew my innermost feelings and was the only One I could go to now. He was waiting for me to come to him, after I had rejected him for all these years. He was ready to make my ways straight and keep me under the shadow of his wings, protecting and loving me through these difficult times.
After 4 ½ years of grueling, exhausting loneliness, I’ve matured. I’ve made it by God’s grace and the support of God’s children, fellow Christian’s, who are angels that come to bring hope and remind me who I am. The only thing that kept me going and comforted me was the volunteers from Celebration Fellowship church. My family and faith can only be there so much until the sweet angels of God sit with you face to face. Then you see God in them.
I could write a book on the different degrees of darkness in this place, but I know the [Celebration Fellowship] volunteers that come here, might be the only positive influence. They know how precious life is and how precious every single person is, even those in prison. When I felt like giving up, you [CF volunteers] came along with the Holy Spirit’s influence and kept me going.