Share |

Beauty Behind Bars

The Transforming Power of God’s Word

Sometimes we don’t know we have something until it is taken away. Sometimes we don’t value something until it’s gone. Sometimes we fail to recognize the significance of something until we try to imagine our lives without it.

What would life be like if we didn’t have beauty? What if we never experienced it? What if our eyes were never drawn to it, if it were never pointed out, or never talked about? What if we lived in a place where all things beautiful were forbidden? How would we worship? How would we understand the God of beauty?

Prison is a place devoid of beauty, and those incarcerated often have had little experience of it and thus lack the imagination to be able to comprehend a new way of being and a God of beauty.

As you read this article about Celebration Fellowship, ask yourself how the lessons they have learned can be applied to your own context.

Does your congregation recognize beauty and name it? Is it valued and expressed? How does the environment in which you worship point to the God of beauty whom we glorify? —JB

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
       because the Lord has anointed me
       to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
       to proclaim freedom to the captives
       and release from darkness for the prisoners . . .
to comfort all who mourn . . .
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
       instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
       instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
       instead of a spirit of despair.
— Isaiah 61:1–3

This poignant passage from Isaiah embodies the spiritual inspiration of the newest congregation in the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination I belong to. The congregation is called Celebration Fellowship, and it’s a vibrant, spirit-filled worshiping body of inmates and volunteers that is the first organized church in the Michigan prison system.

Introducing Celebration Fellowship

The seed for this exciting outreach was planted by Rich and Carol Rienstra. They began Christians for Prisoners and Prisoners for Christ to meet the need for a “church behind bars” for their incarcerated son, Troy, and his fellow inmate believers. In 2008, Rich became the first pastor of Celebration Fellowship Church; he retired in 2011 to focus his time on reentry programs. Pastor Andy Hanson, a recent Calvin Theological Seminary graduate, was called to continue the ministry.

Celebration Fellowship has become a multisite prison congregation inside the Michigan Prison Correctional Facilities in Ionia, Michigan. The first church was planted inside the Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in 2008. A second congregation was planted in 2012 at Handlon Correctional Facility, and a third congregation formed for Bellamy Creek Level 1 inmates in 2014. In November 2016, the collected Celebration Fellowship congregations became an official, commissioned Christian Reformed Church.

When we expect beauty, peace, and tranquility, the ugliness of the world becomes glaringly obvious.

Celebration Fellowship is a unique church where the prison inmates are both the leaders and the members of the worshiping community. They are guided in worship by Pastor Hanson, are financially supported by churches and ministry partners on the outside, and have volunteers who become part of the worshiping community. This is truly “ministry with” rather than “ministry to” those in prison. Celebration Fellowship also assists inmates leaving prison by helping them to find a home church, housing, jobs, and social support systems. (To learn more, go to www.celebrationfellowshipcrc.com.)

Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Mark Muller, head of the Celebration Fellowship Steering Committee, says, “For two hours every week, the Spirit gathers to itself a congregation quite unlike any other in the State of Michigan. Citizens judged by the state to be felonious are joined by others for an hour of study and an hour of holy worship. . . . It’s at once a congregation like any other, yet, unlike most, its inside members live a highly structured, forced communal existence, complete with their own argot, mores, and practices.”

Members on the outside, Muller says, “are aware that prison is a far country. When gathering material for the study hour, they found there are few resources contextualized to that country. Save for the Word itself, our study materials weren’t adapted to fit the milieu of the inside members. To grow the body and mature the saints, the church felt the urgent need for a study curriculum that spoke the language of its members and used examples relevant to where they live and move and have their being.”

In response, Muller organized a creative team to make a Bible study guide addressing the unique needs of the inmates. The result is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a contextualized curriculum that provides “faith-nurturing reflections for small study groups inside prisons.” For the inmates, it’s a “guide for the journey home” so that Christians behind prison walls can come together into a caring community, one committed to transforming lives for Jesus Christ by nurturing the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of its members. Art is used as a means to bring beauty into inmates’ stark world and to help them see the gospel through new eyes and in new ways.

The Role of Beauty

Because Celebration Fellowship is a prison church, not a prison ministry, its focus is on worship, discipleship and faith formation—areas in which beauty plays a unique part.

“Creative, artistic Bible study can introduce beauty into the barren prison environment where ‘darkness’ can constantly overcome,” explains David Koetje, a member of the creative team.. “We bring beauty through worship that is liturgical, discussion that is relevant, and art that is rich in meaning to church members who are figuring out how to live a life of thanksgiving while confined by barbed wire and concrete walls.”

“Everyone agrees it all starts with beauty—step one,” Muller says. “Before the apple fell from the tree it was red and round and without blemish. Hence, the reason for hope: If it once was, it can be again. But if you skip step one and start at step two, the wormy apple on the ground is your best shot at understanding beauty. Of course, it’s a wrong understanding.”

After a year or so of weekly fellowship with inmate members, it occurred to Muller that “many had never seen the original apple; they had no deep experience of love or compassion or kindness to draw on after they dropped their apple. So they had no hope. How can new inmate believers understand the kingdom if they’ve never had peek at what was meant to be? The “not yet” is hard to envision if the “already” never existed for them. So we turned to beauty.”

“One has to look hard for beauty in prison,” Hanson says. “It is a place that society keeps intentionally ugly. After all, most believe prison should be an ugly place for ugly people who’ve done ugly things.

“We don’t tend to think of beauty as necessary for life,” he continues. “However, life as we think of it biblically is one that requires more than the bare minimum. Biblical life is a life of fruitfulness and the abundance of God’s blessings. It is life not in the bare-minimum shelter, but in the Lord’s mansion. Life in God’s kingdom is one in which we don’t wear baseball caps, but beautiful crowns of gold. That beauty is for the already and the not-yet.”

Hanson believes that the life that God gives us is “a beautiful life, where we walk in his ways, in the light of the truth, cherishing the beauty of his creation through the talents he’s given his people. When we expect beauty, peace, and tranquility, the ugliness of the world becomes glaringly obvious. Our incarcerated brothers have tasted God’s beauty, and they want to make prison more beautiful—a place where God dwells.”

The “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” curriculum guides the believers behind walls to see the transforming beauty of God’s Word working within their world. As Hanson says, “In a place of the bare minimum and of ugliness, we find abundance and beauty through God’s people. In a place of scowls and anger, we find men smiling and raising their hands in joy to praise the Lord through song and prayer.”

It becomes a place where we can all sing together,
Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, help me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
— Thomas A. Dorsey