Part 2 of Imagine Kenya Series

By Laura DeGroot

We arrived in Kenya today and I am excited to begin telling stories about the incredible work God is doing in prisons in this country. But it might help to start with introducing you to the people I am traveling with. They all work for Crossroads Prison Ministries, but for each of them, it’s more than just work. It’s a calling.

Our Leader

Imagine…you’re invited to go to Kenya for the first time with the purpose of bringing words of encouragement to men and women in prison.  Are you excited? Are you also afraid?  That was true of me in the weeks leading up to our departure. 

Then I met with Crossroads International Director Cynthia Williams. She was the first of my travel companions to answer some of my questions. Why prison ministry? How did you find yourself at Crossroads and what is your sweet spot in the work you do?

A formational experience as a daughter of missionary parents explains a lot. One day, young Cynthia joined her father on a visit to a dirty, corrupt, dilapidated prison in Ecuador. The men there only had food if family brought it. The space where they gathered for worship was in the yard where a pool of freezing water stood. Inmates were put into the freezing water for punishment. She was there with her guitar to sing about the goodness of God to those who were being tortured. 

Cynthia Williams Portrait
Cynthia Williams

Cynthia’s parents were missionaries for 50 years, and she and her husband continued missionary life themselves. She is a citizen of the US, Canada and Bolivia, is fluent in Spanish and English and can navigate conversations in Swedish, French, German & Papla Mentu. 

Extensive international travel created a heart that is always “out there” and Cynthia admits she is primarily comfortable living in countries other than the USA. She sees her sweet spot being an international liaison, because God equipped her with a lifetime of cross-cultural, lingual and experiential opportunities. Connecting people with people comes naturally.

Crossroads had a vague ad for a Spanish speaker in 2008. The international arm of the ministry was fledgling with a handful of extension centers. The board hired Cynthia and she was able to use her life experience to work to create new collaborations in other countries. Thanks to Cynthia’s leadership, Crossroads has over 20 international partnerships today.

“Prison is a powerful tool to turn lives around.” She’s seen it, she knows it, and she has personal connections to people whose lives have changed trajectory from a destructive path to a life-giving one. Cynthia wants to bring awareness to the impact Crossroads’ Bible studies and mentor relationships have on broken people.

She has also been encouraged by the dedication of international extension center leaders and mentors, who live sacrificially, traveling long distances to deliver Bible studies and visit men and women in prison – often using their own resources to make it happen

It’s a common attitude in other countries to consider those in prison as “discardable people.”  Free people consider incarcerated people unwanted because they caused disruption so now they’re put away and forgotten. Even the church is often not interested in these men and women. It is a slow work getting Christians to want to care, to support, then mobilize to bring Jesus’ love and Good News to prisoners. Cynthia and Crossroads partners are at work changing that story.

You can imagine that following our meeting, seeing the well-planned (jam-packed) agenda, and interviewing Cynthia, the fear has disappeared. We’re in good hands with this capable woman whose heart is all in to “open doors and create good will” in the world outside the USA. 

The “Designated Male”

Vice President of Operations and Finance, and my better half, JR DeGroot, is the token man on this team. The “only one in the office armed with a spreadsheet,” JR claims his sweet spot is to keep things moving.

Jeffery DeGroot Portrait
JR DeGroot

What things? Lessons move. Materials for students and mentors move. Then there’s building maintenance, snow removal, parking lot and landscaping needs, in addition to tech and financial matters. The care and safety of volunteers are on that list of moving things as well. 

JR came to Crossroads not by his own choosing, but by God’s divine intervention. A mutual friend connected JR to Lisa Blystra, the president of Crossroads, shortly after she began her new post and shortly after JR and I moved to Michigan from Florida. His 23-year career in corrections and the world of re-entry was preparation for this God-given opportunity. 

But still he never envisioned working for an international ministry.

He just asked me, “Did you ever imagine you would ride on Kenya Airways heading for Nairobi?”

No JR, no, that never came up in all of my imagining. Kenya…here we come.

The Early Riser

Between 4:30 and 5 a.m. is a natural wakeup time for Brenda McGowen, vice president of programming and the newest member of Crossroads senior leadership team. She too speaks to God’s plan and the work of the Holy Spirit through relationships that brought her to Crossroads.

This will not be her first time to set foot in a prison. On the first leg of our travel she began to tell me what I will see when I do take my first step inside. “You won’t see prisoners…” she stops. She doesn’t want to tell me what to expect. I guess I will have to wait and see.

Professionally, Brenda worked with at-risk youth through community and government agencies. She later shifted her focus to the parents of those youth via parenting education, workforce development, psycho-educational programs and government groups to advocate for effective family policies. That experience led her to Prison Fellowship. 

Brenda was raised in a two-parent home in middle class America, where education, family and faith were valued. And yet, at age eight she was already visiting her oldest brother at Angola prison. And at eighteen, she listened to a judge sentence her 17-year-old brother to 20 years to life in prison for accessory to murder. 

Her family fought his wrongful conviction for years, having to take the case to international courts to bring down corruption and police brutality in a Chicago police department. Her brother was acquitted, released and exonerated yet continues to suffer mental health challenges resulting from an 11-year prison stay. 

In total, three brothers and her grandfather spent time in prison. Brenda shares: “The pain and subsequent trauma drove me to demonstrate my faith to seek to love mercy and do justice.”

Brenda’s sweet spot is partnerships. She loves to connect and leverage resources for the good of the Kingdom. As she imagines Kenya, she will look for answers to how and why men and women go to prison there. Did injustices early in life develop behaviors that led to incarceration in ways that are similar to people in the US? Does the church show and value the humanity of those in prison?

“What you’ll see in prison,” she repeats, “isn’t prisoners. What you’ll see is humanity surrounded by circumstances.” That’s all she says, but based on the compassion she says it with, I imagine she knows a lot more than she’s saying right now.

The Storyteller

That’s me, Laura DeGroot. I’m a storyteller. I love good coffee, good food and stacks of books ever present. I’ve lived from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast and states in between.  Everywhere I go there are differences and similarities in people and place, always a story to be heard. 

I’m arriving in Kenya with pens and a leather journal. More importantly I’ve come with my eyes wide open, my heart ready to listen and a desire to be fully present to the place and people and the stories ready to be told. 

We are about one hour from Kenya as I write this. Can’t wait for you to go along on this journey with me.

Laura DeGroot is a writer and speaker. She will be blogging throughout Crossroads’s trip to Kenya. Follow along here.