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.
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
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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.