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Profile: Steve Moerman, pastor of Cornerstone Prison Church

In 1996, Pres and Di Moerman invited their cousins, Steve and Diane Moerman, to a Prison Fellowship weekend. Steve and Diane got to know other inmates through one-on-one visits and Bible study correspondence.

Eventually Steve Moerman went to seminary, entered prison ministry, and began planting Cornerstone Prison Church in South Dakota State Penitentiary’s oldest unit, The Hill, home to 800 men.

Needed: permission to form

The Moermans and other volunteers already lead several weekly small group Bible studies and a larger Friday night Bible study and song time.

“The best Bible studies I’ve ever been in are behind the walls, because they know why they’re in there. In small groups, we go slowly but deeply. We’ve taken a year to do Ephesians, like what it means to put off the old. And if you take off the old, what new do you fill up with?

“One guy was dealing in material he shouldn’t have been. Another guy called him on it. So the guy who had porn in his cell got rid of it,” Steve Moerman says.

Bible study members help each other learn to replace old reactions—to swing out violently, yield to former influences, or use drugs and alcohol to numb their anger and pain—with faithful choices.

Inmates and volunteers share music leadership on Friday nights. “In a recent prayer service, we did some responsive reading from Psalms and Job. The men were thankful for the opportunity to speak to God in words of struggle. Praise songs are fine, but it’s also okay to voice your frustrations and pain to God,” Moerman says.

Many guys already see the Friday night group as “their church” and are inviting people. As soon as he receives permission for another time slot, Moerman will begin Cornerstone Prison Church weekly worship.

“It’s the next step. Profession of faith, baptism, and Communion are easier to do in a worship setting than in a Bible study setting. We want an actual church with inmates who are office bearers. I’ll probably have the only church where elders volunteer to go to classis meetings,” he says.

Needed: insider discipleship

Cornerstone Prison Church aims to reach non-Christians and strengthen Christians. “Jail ministry focuses on getting right with God. By the time a lot of guys move from jail to The Hill, they’ve become Christians. We focus on establishing them into solid Christians.

“But within seven years, the average inmate is considered disabled, because they lose the ability to make choices. Even ordering fast food can overwhelm them,” Moerman says.

Forming a church helps inmates develop leadership, especially important for those who get released. Giving inmates a sense of ownership in a congregation also builds them as a community of mature Christian disciples who encourage each other.

“One Bible study guy said to another, ‘You’re 40. Why not act your age?’ The other guy said he had never had any positive role models. Someone else told me he’d looked forward to going to prison so he could get his education. Imagine how broken his outside life was if he looked up to prison,” Moerman says.

Needed: outside acceptance

Cornerstone Prison Church will likely include visitors from Christian Reformed churches in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.

“It’s important for a prison congregation to develop an insider/outsider group that sees itself as one community. Outsiders need to see themselves as reaching sideways, not down, to others who need grace.

“Inmates lose their place within their families. Many families won’t visit or send photos of the kids. Inmates lose their place in society. We make a place within God’s kingdom for men behind walls.

“Many guys can’t see themselves as forgivable. But people on the outside have the same struggle. Some don’t feel worthy to take communion. We all need to take hold of God’s full offer of grace,” Moerman says.