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Celebration Fellowship: a church behind bars

A+church+member+is+baptized+at+Celebration+Fellowship.+Photo+courtesy+Celebration+Fellowship.
A church member is baptized at Celebration Fellowship. Photo courtesy Celebration Fellowship.

A church member is baptized at Celebration Fellowship. Photo courtesy Celebration Fellowship.

A church member is baptized at Celebration Fellowship. Photo courtesy Celebration Fellowship.

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Celebration Fellowship is a fully recognized congregation under the Christian Reformed Church. Yet unlike most CRC churches, Celebration Fellowship (CF) is a church behind bars. The congregation meets within the fences of three correctional facilities — Handlon, Bellamy Creek Level 1 and Bellamy Creek Level 2 — in Ionia, about a 30-minute drive from the Calvin Knollcrest Campus.

The congregations at Handlon and Bellamy Creek Level 1 meet on Monday evenings, and the congregation at Bellamy Creek Level II meets on Tuesday evenings. Each congregation meets to create a community of faith and discipleship that develops and strengthens relationships between members and with Jesus Christ. This community is open to all who believe in Jesus or who may want to know more about him.  

In addition to the members “inside,” CF has several volunteer “outside” members from numerous area churches who come into the prison to worship as one congregation in Christ. The pastor does not have a congregation on the outside requiring his time; rather, he is a full-time pastor for CF who has been hired and is supervised by an outside steering team of volunteers. One member of this steering team is a returned citizen and former “inside” member of CF.

CF is a unique congregation because most prison churches in both Michigan and the U.S. only have volunteer pastors who come in on a rotating basis. This makes for little consistency. Due to the problem with inconsistent pastors and CF’s congregational growth, a Calvin Seminary intern was also brought in to assist Pastor Andy Hanson by meeting with the “inside” planning teams, preaching for Monday evening services and counselling.

Each week the congregations meet during a two-hour block of time. The first hour consists of small group Bible study, and during the second hour everyone gathers for worship. The small groups are enjoyed both by the “inside” and “outside” members because it is a time of sharing and fellowship that is hard to come by otherwise. For some, prison can be both a lonely place and a place where you are never alone. Because of this, fellowship— especially with “outside” members— is desired and vital.

During the services, the “inside” members have taken on leadership roles in praise, worship, liturgy, Bible studies and services. The volunteers are greatly appreciated by the inside members but continually testify that they always leave more blessed than when they came. Each congregation has about ten “outside” members who meet in Grand Rapids and drive out to Ionia — the “inside” members are always there. An interesting twist of Celebration Fellowship is that in a prison church, inmates attend the services who are atheists, Muslims, Odinists, and members of other religions.

The Handlon Correctional Facility is also the site of Calvin’s satellite program known as the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). Currently, two cohorts of 20 men each are taking Calvin classes toward a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership, with 20 more students being added each year. Several of the CPI students join in with CF each week to praise God for what he has done, is doing and will do.

For more information about Celebration Fellowship, or to volunteer at CF weekly or monthly at Celebration Fellowship, contact Pastor Andy at www.celebrationfellowshipcrc.com or through Church of the Servant CRC, CF’s mother church. All are welcome to volunteer — just don’t make plans to stay after the service.

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