When the author Ted Conover worked as correctional officer at New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison in the 1990s, he sometimes had to pass through ten different locked gates to reach his assigned post.
My visit with other board members of Prison Congregations of America to inmates at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in western Michigan on April 10 did not involve nearly as many doors. But it was far from simple.
The process unfolded like this:
Several weeks before our board meeting, Mary Mortenson, the director of Prison Congregation, collected the names and Social Security numbers of those intending to visit the prison. She passed those along to Rich Rienstra, pastor of Celebration Fellowship, as the congregation at Bellamy Creek is called. Rich in turn provided them to the official prison chaplain, who notified the appropriate security authorities in the prison.
When we arrived at Bellamy Creek, we left our billfolds, belts, cell phones, and virtually all other personal objects in our vehicles. There were lockers just inside the entrance for other miscellaneous items. I tossed my comb in one of those, keeping only my driver’s license.
After a bit of milling around, we passed − in groups of six or seven − through the first gate, into an area that Rich called “the bubble.” There, we had to leave our licenses, remove our shoes as in airport screening, and have our hands dabbed with a substance that was then scanned.
Finally, after more milling around, we were in. Only two gates, not Conover’s ten, but “the bubble” packed numerous security features into an enclosed space.
We were lead down a corridor to the room where Celebration Fellowship meets, to spend a remarkable two hours with the brothers there. The Spirit was moving, animated by a mutual recognition that ultimately there is only one gate that matters: the one Jesus offers in John 14:6, “the way, the truth, and the life.”