This month’s profile features Jane and Andy Vroon.
Interviewer: Welcome, Andy and Jane! You are both involved in prison ministry.
Andy & Jane: Yes.
Interviewer: But in different ways. Can you tell us about that?
Jane: We can. I’ll start. I have been an elder of Celebration Fellowship for 4 or 5 years. While I attend COS and find many of my spiritual needs met here, I am also a member of that church and support it in whatever way I can. The elders meet once a month and we have a service in the prison on Monday nights. Not everyone goes every week, but we go once a month at least; some of the members go to the Bellamy Creek service on Tuesday nights. Celebration Fellowship has three campuses, Handlon Prison, Bellamy Creek prison, and the dorm, where there is less security. The experience really draws you in. I used to go less frequently but now our new pastor, Bob Arbogast, has brought new life to the services and that makes them very enjoyable.
Andy: We started with Celebration Fellowship 8 or 9 years ago at the invitation of Rich and Carol Rienstra. We had moved here from Washington, DC, and we were interested in ministry with COS. We started going to Bellamy Creek. Subsequently, the ministry expanded to Handlon Prison and we got involved there.
Interviewer: Handlon is the higher security prison, right?
Andy: It is at level 2 whereas Bellamy Creek is a multilevel facility. After we had been there for a while we got to know Troy Rienstra who had been transferred there as an inmate. He wanted to start a program that involved men in prison ministering to each other. He started the Life Change Group which had as its focus entrepreneurship, restorative justice, and citizenship. He developed a curriculum and two of us from COS’s Prisoners in Christ committee agreed to serve as sponsors. We met weekly for a number of months until Troy was transferred to a different prison. With Troy gone, the group stopped meeting for a few weeks but then decided to reconvene with perhaps a little different focus as a book club. Hence, the Life Change Book Club which has continued to meet pretty much weekly for the past seven or so years.
Interviewer: Most folks at COS have never been inside a prison. Can you walk us through the experience? What is it like for you from the moment you leave your house?
Jane: We start at 5:10 with a 45-minute car ride. It’s nice when you can ride with other people. You can talk about the experience beforehand and process it on the way back. When we get to the prison, we never know what to expect – it depends who is working the front desk. We go through the “bubble”, the security area when we first enter. We have to turn in our driver’s license and get our prison ID. Then they process us through security. Six people go through at a time. We have to walk through a detector then get patted down by a security guard. They even look into our mouths. Anything that goes inside the prison, they have to know about. It’s listed on a “manifest.” We are then given a personal protection device. It has a button on it to signal trouble or distress and guards will hear and come. We get inside about 6:30. A guard escorts us across the campus. There will generally be guys mingling as we walk along, coming back from dinner. We greet them. Some we know, some we don’t. They have a beautiful garden in there, a flower garden. We make our way to the auditorium where we meet. We sign in with the guard behind the desk. Generally, the prisoners are waiting for us. One will count how many volunteers come in. One is responsible for name tags. A chaplain’s assistant is behind a desk. He checks off the inside members who come. Generally, the music group is playing songs. We have a keyboard player, drummer, and guitar player, all inside members. Four guys are the choir. One thing that is different about Celebration fellowship is that we are a body that is composed of inside and outside members. There is a worship team inside and, with Pastor Bob’s help, they run the service. We begin with small bible study groups – 10 or 12 people each. We participate in the small groups and sometimes offer a prayer. About 7:30, we go back to the auditorium for the service. There is a call to worship, some songs, a confession of sin, and words of assurance. Then there will be the offering, scripture, and the sermon is preached. There is no money in there, so the offerings are things like talents written on a slip of paper. Sometimes there is room for testimony from both the inside guys and the outside members. At least once a month we serve communion. The elements are one piece – a wafer with a strip of plastic on top that we peel off and a little cup underneath. It’s difficult to open so we help one another.
Interviewer: So that meets prison regulations.
Jane: Yes, that’s what it is. It certainly would be nice to pass a loaf of bread. But anyway, we go to the front, get our little bread and wine then we circle the auditorium. We end by singing My Friends May You in Grace. Then the pastor comes to the middle and gives the parting blessing. That’s close to 8:30. We say our goodbyes and get escorted back. We turn in our monitors, get our license back and are on our way. We get back home around 9:30.
Interviewer: Is the experience the same for you, Andy?
Andy: Pretty much. The coming and going are. We don’t have the service, but we have about an hour and a half to talk about books, watch a movie, have a discussion. Prayer always starts and ends the meeting. People who attend are not all Christians. We have at least one Sunni Muslim and a couple of Nation of Islam guys.
Andy: There’s usually between 12 and 16. We try to keep it about that size to encourage discussion.
Interviewer: It’s a long drive especially in the winter when it’s cold and the roads are slippery. Why do you do it?
Jane: You could not receive more thanks for your presence than you receive from the guys there. You mean so much to them. They realize what’s involved, the time it takes. We don’t understand much about life in prison. I used to think that sending a criminal to prison was a good idea. And maybe for some of them it is. But for many it is desolate. The guards don’t encourage guys having meaningful relationships or fraternizing. In the general prison population, that leads to trouble. So, this idea of having a Christian community is something very new and foreign. The guys do seek each other out, meet on the yard, talk about bible study. It’s an amazing thing. Worshipping in that environment is so real, so unpretentious. God’s love for everyone is so apparent because brokenness is why everyone is there. No one pretends to be a fine Christian. They all know their struggles and they appreciate God’s grace because it is something they don’t experience other places. It’s just such a beautiful thing.
Andy: Early on in the life change group meeting, there were questions that guys asked of us as sponsors like “Why do you guys come out here?” and “What do you think of us?” The answer that I gave was, “But for the grace of God there go I.” And it’s a fact. We are all children of God and we need to interact together in that way, to reach out to each other, forgive each other, support each other, admonish each other. And that’s what they appreciate and that’s what we appreciate as sponsors coming in. In many ways, we are fed much more than what we give. The Lord is in that place even though it is a prison.
Interviewer: Jane, you described what must be a spiritual and emotional desert for the men. There is no one they can really trust, no one they can get close to. It must be a breath of fresh air, an island of hope when you folks come in there, isn’t it?
Jane: Just last month we had a visitor appreciation night. The warden asked Mark Urban, who is our inside manager, to ask the guys what Celebration Fellowship meant to them. He said that if he had to pick one word that most of the guys said, it was “hope.” Our coming there gives them hope for themselves that they can relate to outside people, that they have value to us, and they can look forward to our coming and know that we are going to bring God’s love and human warmth into their situation. There are some that don’t get visitors and may have been there twenty or thirty years. The only outside people they interact with are those that come from the church.
Interviewer: Are there any other memories of your experiences that particularly stand out to you?
Andy: In the book club, there’s a lot of self-examination. They share how the stories affect them. Sometimes it makes them pretty vulnerable. I recall one guy breaking down in tears and that is something you usually don’t do in prison. He excused himself until he could compose himself. Then he came back in and apologized profusely. We assured him that his tears were a good thing and didn’t indicate any weakness or deficiency on his part.
Jane: One thing struck me early on was that these guys are regular people. They are not aberrant or someone that you would want to shy away from. The more you interact with them, the more you realize that these are regular guys who are God’s children. I remember a very moving thing that happened one time at Bellamy Creek where one of the prisoners had written a psalm and wanted to share it with us. It was about his experience. As a juvenile, he was tried as an adult for murder. He has now lived 15 years in prison. That was all he had to look forward to. It opened my eyes to some of the stories. We don’t ask a lot about their crimes or their past. It’s more about the person they are now.
Interviewer: Well, COS certainly appreciates what the two of you and others who go into the prisons do. Are there ways that COS can support you more effectively?
Andy: Pray for what we do. Pray for the guys who are in prison.
Jane: It will change your viewpoint of prisoners and returning citizens if you can go in as a one-time visitor for a service. Or come along and visit the book club.
Interviewer: If someone wanted to go in, should they get in touch with you?
Andy: Sure. Or others who they know who are involved.
Jane: They will need to get a clearance. There’s some paperwork involved.
Interviewer: I imagine it takes some time to process that.
Jane: Not much. A week or two maybe.
Interviewer: Well, that’s it. Thanks very much!
Jane and Andy were interviewed by Jim Bradley on Sept. 26, 2018.
COS members serve the community in many ways. For more information on COS’ outreach ministries, visit https://www.churchoftheservantcrc.org/outreach/. To find ways you can serve, visit the outreach page and click on the volunteer opportunities link or contact Jim Bradley at firstname.lastname@example.org.