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Bellamy Creek Celebration Fellowship Church

LaGrave Members attend Celebration Fellowship on the fourth Tuesday of the month.

When Jesus Came to Meet us

For over two years now, a number of LaGrave members have been attending Bible study and worship services at Celebration Fellowship Church, which meets in the Bellamy Creek Prison in Ionia. Did we always feel like driving out to Ionia on a Monday night? To be honest, I didn’t always want to do so. For example, one Monday in September, I was particularly tired by late afternoon. As I was eating my dinner at 4:15, I tried to tell my three-year-old grand-daughter, Morgan, why I had to go “bye-bye.” I explained that I was going to a church in a prison, where we would study the Bible, sing songs and worship God. She leaned forward in her youth chair and said, “Will you see Jesus there?” I paused a moment, startled by her perceptive question, but then replied, “I think I will.”

Writing in Christian Century, Jason Byassee observes, “If we are unwilling to go to meet Jesus in prison, Jesus is willing to come from prison to meet us. (Oct. 3, 2006, p. 20) Usually when the church notes an area of population growth, it thinks about establishing a church plant in that area. That is exactly what the Evangelism Committee recommended LaGrave do several years ago. It proposed that LaGrave support a church in a prison, both by offering financial support and by sending a team of members to worship with that church. That church plant was later called Celebration Fellowship and has met almost every Monday night in the Bellamy Creek Prison in Ionia, Michigan with LaGrave members attending on the fourth Monday. Some members have also attended on additional Monday nights.

We went to prison and met Jesus Christ, because at the same time, prisoners brought Jesus Christ to us. We have learned that Christ’s church, in this case, has two expressions: the church on the inside and the church on the outside. We have learned, for example, that prisoners often have a deep knowledge and understanding of Scripture and a faith tested by the fire of living it out in often difficult and trying circumstances. Members of the church on the inside are well aware of their “sins and miseries,” having had them pointed out to them by many people. But God’s grace cuts through razor-like fences and metal doors. We from the church on the outside have had many in-depth discussions of the Christian faith, whether through the study of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, Rich Devos’ Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People, N. T. Wright’s study of Philippians and other Bible studies held at for about an hour before the worship service. Rich DeVos addressed the church after they completed their study of is book.

We from the church on the outside have also had many wonderful worship experiences with the church at Celebration Fellowship. God has provided excellent leadership for the church on the inside. Its regular pastor, Rich Rienstra, meets each Thursday with the prisoners’ leadership team. This team formulates questions and prepares the Bible study for the next week as well as deciding on when and how they will participate in the worship service that follows the Bible study. Occasionally, we were favored by a spirited male choir.

As prisoners were released into society and left the church, the Lord provided new leaders to take their place. God has also prompted the hearts of other prisoners to join the church, so that at each service one will find about 30 or more from the church on the inside who join the 10-15 volunteers from the seven supporting churches on the outside. Not a service goes by without the brothers thanking the volunteers for coming.

When members of Celebration Fellowship leave Bellamy Creek, many of them settle in the Grand Rapids area, where they are helped by organizations that are a part of the Michigan Prison Re-entrty Initiative. While this is a state-sponsered program, leaders of the Michigan Department of Corrections, led by Patricia Caruso, the head of the DOC, recognize the powerful role faith-based organizations can play in successfully restoring citizens to society. A network of organizations such as Criminal Justice Chaplaincy along with the help of members of many churches and other organizations are helping to return people to society.

Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Little did we know that we did not bring Jesus to Bellamy Creek Prison; he was already there. The Holy Spirit has been transforming lives in both the church on the inside and the church on the outside, and that has made all the difference.

Robert L. Otte