“I had a buddy who had just left a year before—not a great place to be,” said Mark Urban of the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich., where he is incarcerated.
“It was considered gladiator school, the worst of the worst,” added fellow inmate Crisanto Escabalzeta Jr. “You were destined to fight.”
That’s the environment Urban and Escabalzeta were expecting to find inside Handlon’s 20-foot-tall, barbwired fencing.
It’s what Bob Woldhuis, an assistant resident supervisor at Handlon, had witnessed for much of his 23-year career inside those fences. “The culture had definitely been every man for himself,” he said.
But when Escabalzeta and Urban arrived at Handlon in 2016, their perception was shattered. They witnessed men tutoring other men, professors teaching inmates, men learning trades, and a fully functioning church inside prison walls.
So what happened in just a handful of years?
Steps of Obedience
Part of the answer is found in how the Holy Spirit led several different people to this prison setting.
“I had been aware of and receptive to issues and concerns about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration,” said Bob Arbogast, who was a pastor in Columbus, Ohio, at the time. “But even though I drove by this one particular prison countless times, I never gave a thought to the guys on the inside; (it) never occurred to me to think about them.”
Around the same time, Mark and Carol Muller from Grand Rapids, Mich., were hearing about inmates frequently from a fellow church member who regularly visited prison and talked about these visits. They decided to visit one, as well, to appease their friend. “We felt if we go, they won’t say anything anymore,” Mark Muller said.
Urban, who received a lengthy sentence in 2005, wasn’t going to church services even though he is a Christian. “I was looking to go to Bible college,” said Urban, and “the deal with the chaplain was that I had to attend one service before he would sign off on my Bible college correspondence course, and it happened to be Celebration Fellowship” inside Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility.
Urban, Arbogast, and the Mullers each took a step of obedience. For Arbogast, at the prompting of a retired pastor in 2012, he stepped into Marion Correctional Facility in Ohio. Mark and Carol Muller, in 2008, and Urban, in 2012, stepped into a Celebration Fellowship service.
“They had no idea where we would be now. But they just showed up,” said Todd Cioffi, director of the Calvin Prison Initiative.
Stirring hearts, forming identity
Now, in 2019, on any given Monday night, Urban, Arbogast, and the Mullers are worshiping together inside the fences of Handlon Correctional Facility as full members of Celebration Fellowship—a church plant of the initial congregation that still exists inside Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility across the street.
On this Monday night, about a dozen “outside” members of this congregation move through multiple checkpoints and take a 100-yard walk across the prison yard. As soon as they enter the school building, they are cheerfully greeted by “inside” members Jeff and Steve, and fellowship begins. A cold hallway soon takes on the feeling of a warm living room as it fills with meaningful conversation. You can hear the band warming up inside the auditorium, and some members of the congregation take the opportunity to sing along before the official start of the service.
“There are guys in here that don’t have families. There are guys in here that don’t get visits. There are guys that don’t have anything,” said Urban, “and they all say the same thing: ‘On Monday nights, it’s like having a visit.’”
The service officially starts. Men in prison blues sit next to men in khakis and polo shirts and women in blouses. The 100 in attendance sing, pray, watch a video, have small group discussions, listen to a sermon, and even celebrate profession of faith.
“This whole collection of people loves each other and cares deeply,” said Arbogast, who has served as the pastor of Celebration Fellowship since 2017.
“The fact that somebody knows your name and they call you out by name … they ask about who you are, they remember the stories you talk about in small group, they see the improvement over six months or a year and they encourage you, that’s a beautiful thing,” said Escalbazeta.
“We are in each other’s lives,” Mark Muller said. “I wouldn’t have met these people in 100 million years. I’m very much ‘the other’ for them, and they are kind enough to treat me as a member.”
A shared commitment
While the church is no doubt contributing to the culture change happening at Handlon, so too is education.
In 2010, John Rottman, professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, started offering classes to Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, once notorious as one of the bloodiest prisons in America. Rottman hoped to show students how education could play a role in transforming prison culture.
In 2011, Dave Rylaarsdam, professor of the history of Christianity and worship at CTS, received a letter from an inmate at Handlon expressing a growing interest in becoming equipped to help transform his own prison culture. Within months, with the blessing of the warden, the seminary started offering a few classes at Handlon.
A few years later, those first steps of obedience would pay major dividends when the Calvin Prison Initiative was established—a partnership between Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary that offers 20 inmates each year the chance to begin pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in faith and community leadership.
“I’m amazed at how God has blessed this program, all the faithful work of faculty, administrators, students, and volunteers,” said Cioffi. “And now we’re starting to see the fruit of our labor. God is raising up inmates as moral and spiritual leaders, and the prison is being transformed.”
The first cohort of CPI students will graduate with bachelor’s degrees from Calvin University in 2020, becoming the first class of inmates ever to earn bachelor’s degrees in the state of Michigan. Escabalzeta and Urban will graduate in 2021 and, with the help of Resonate Global Missions, are in the process of becoming commissioned pastors within Michigan’s prison system. While they aren’t sure where they’ll be called to serve after graduation, leaders of Celebration Fellowship see the education they are receiving through the CPI program as an asset to their current church body.
“Guys in the Calvin program have been gaining tools to carefully read and consider Scripture,” said Arbogast. “They don’t draw unwarranted conclusions from a word or verse, but they are being trained to think deeply and broadly as they approach Scripture, and that is a helpful thing to have in the mix (at Celebration Fellowship).
“Celebration Fellowship is composed of scholars, guys who can’t even write their own names, and everything in between,” Arbogast continued. “In 1 Corinthians, it says one part of the body can’t look at another part of the body thinking that I’m more worthy than you are. There has been no need to push that (teaching) on the members of the body. They are just innately aware of belonging to one another and together belonging to Christ.”
“Changing the culture to one that’s more and more looking out for your fellow man, that can do nothing except make this a better place to live, a better place to work, a safer place to be, a less expensive place to run,” said Woldhuis.
And the numbers don’t lie. A prison that used to average 150 major incidents a year, such as assault, robbery, and physical altercations, now averages eight. While there’s much work that still needs to be done, there are now more people within the prison who are equipped and who have something that’s hard to find inside prison walls: hope.
“Shame is the thing that hamstrings everybody—the fact that you feel worthless, you don’t feel like there’s anything to look forward to,” said Escalbezata. “Whether it be members of Celebration Fellowship or all the different professors from Calvin, you can see in their faces the love that they have, the devotion they have towards the individuals who are in prison. It has seriously breathed new life in me.”
“This isn’t a culture change,” said Muller. “This is bigger than that. This is a spiritual change. This is like warfare, and we just won something.”
This article was updated Nov. 12, 2019, to correct a typo.