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 to answer my initial questions about 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.
Though Cynthias parents were missionaries for 50 years, 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 liason, because she’s certain God equipped her with a life time 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 her and Cynthia was able to use her life experience to work into the potential of creating collaborations in other countries and has turned the handful into 20 partnerships today.
“Prison is a powerful tool to turn lives around.” She’s seen it, she knows it, and 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’ correspondence course Bible Study and mentor relationships have on broken people. In International communities the Extension Center Directors, mentors, chaplains, live sacrificially, traveling long distances to deliver mail, visit men and women in prison, often using resources out of their own pockets.
It’s a common attitude in other countries to consider those in prison “discardable people.” Free people consider incarcerated people unwanted because they caused disruption so now they’re put away and forgotten. Even the church is not interested in these men and women. It is a slow work getting them to want to care, to support, then mobilize — bringing Jesus love and Good News to the people. Cynthia and Crossroads partners are at work changing that story.
You can imagine that following our meeting, seeing the well planned (jam packed) daily agenda, and interviewing Mrs Williams, 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.
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” claims his sweet spot is to keep things moving. What things? Lessons move. Materials for students and mentors move. Building maintenance, snow removal, parking lot and landscaping need attention as much as tech and financial matters. Vision and leadership keep growth moving 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 Gods divine intervention. A mutual friend connected JR to Lisa, 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.
In the same way those who are incarcerated are invisible, JR feels the International work of Crossroads is somewhat invisible. Mail between students and mentors in Kenya do not come though the home office. He is eager to learn how they operate, how they track people and process.
Crossroads is in the process of implementing a much needed new operating system which will offer a larger international visibility to the home office on a regular basis. They will be able to see how many students, how many lessons, how many mentors are engaged. That information will be helpful in efficient management of connecting people and pieces.
As part of the Senior leadership at Crossroads, JR speaks to the evidence of God bringing different skills, talents, abilities together in a complimentary combination.
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. This is real, today,
Kenya…here we come.
The Early Riser
4:30-5:00 AM is a natural wake up time for Brenda McGowen. She is Vice President of Programing and the newest member of Crossroads’ 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.
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.
Personally she shares being raised in a two parent home in middle class America, where education, family, faith were valued. And yet, at age eight she was already visiting her oldest brother at Angola prison; at eighteen listened to a judge sentence her seventeen 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 is me, Laura DeGroot. A story teller just like my father Jesus so says my pastor friend Rick Ebbers. 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’ve come 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.
Kenya, see you in an hour.