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Two dozen men in orange and blue prison suits came forward, singing a spiritual as they received Communion from two ordained ministers.

"Hallelujah, we're going to see the King," they sang in warm baritone voices. Theirs was joyful worship at Celebration Fellowship, a church founded late last year inside the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

In this prison congregation, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, convicted murderers and drug dealers read Scripture, lead prayers, and sing hymns with volunteers from nearby churches.

"They treat us like human beings," inmate Eric Jewell, 41, said of the visitors. "You can feel the sincere love they have for us."

The first prison congregation in Michigan is one of a small but growing number of officially established churches helping inmates find faith behind the razor wire.

Unlike traditional prison ministries, prison congregations form worship communities governed by councils that include inmates. Inmates hold church offices, help plan services, distribute Communion, and even tithe from their meager earnings.

"A congregation gives responsibility to the inmate, and so the inmate actually is learning leadership," said Regan Beauchamp, pastor of Prison Lighthouse Fellowship at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. "They are learning how to connect better with one another and be accountable."

Located in a maximum-security unit, the Baptist General Conference church is affiliated with Prison Congregations of America (PCA), a nonprofit based in Mitchell, South Dakota, that was incorporated in 1994 with support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Its 14 congregations also include ELCA, United Methodist, and Disciples of Christ churches ...

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April 2009

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