Building Community Inside Prison Walls

Laura: Today’s audio interview is brought to you by the Chalmers Center. I’m your host, Laura Haley. Brenda McGowan is a proud native from the South Side of Chicago. She began her career in criminal justice reform in 2006 while serving as advisory council chairperson for the St. Joseph County Prison Reentry Initiative. Brenda currently serves as Vice President of programming at Crossroads Prison Ministries. I hope you enjoy my interview with Brenda.

Laura: Brenda, it’s good to have you here today.

Brenda: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here at Chalmers.

Laura: Where are you from?

Brenda: I was born in the Southside of Chicago many years ago into a beautiful, wonderful community with my parents and my siblings. My dad was determined that we would never have to live in an apartment like him so he built our home before we were born, and so I grew up in this community and it was very diverse in terms of occupations and people from different walks of life. So I had an incredible childhood experience. Values of family and community were instilled in us very early. A sense of responsibility civically. But in spite of all that, in spite of being middle-class America, we did encounter folks who were involved in crime and things of that sort. So we encountered this population in our community. So had a wonderful childhood. My mom and dad were both chefs. So our home was a family home where everyone gathered.

Brenda: It also was a home where everyone came when they were down on their luck. My mom had siblings and family members who migrated from the South up North and they lived in our home with us. My mom and dad also opened up their home to foster children. So we had children ranging in age from maybe nine months old to 16 years old who came and live with us. They were giving a lot. We had a really good life and they had a responsibility. They had a sense of responsibility to bring others alongside them and give them a leg up, and we did.

Laura: Brenda, when you were young what did you want to be when you grew up?

Brenda: A businesswoman, I did. I wanted to be a businesswoman. My mother, dad although they were chefs, they also had several businesses when we grew up. Catering businesses, racetrack messenger services, you got to be really old to understand and remember what that was like. But also two restaurants, one of which was in downtown Chicago and I was known as Brenda base manager because I was the manager. I really loved that title. I really thought I was doing something. My mom was from New Orleans and so my dad learned to cook at a place called Lake Shore Club, that’s where they met. So he cooked diverse cuisines. Mom was absolutely Southern Creo and that combination of different cuisines they brought together in a catering business and a restaurant. So we were very, very popular catered to the Archdiocese of Chicago, the District Attorney’s office. So it wasn’t a small operation. We would serve anywhere from five to 700 people, and my job was a salad girl. So to this day make the most beautiful salad you ever want to eat. Unfortunately, one of those salads was potato salad. So I would peel and cube, you know, cut into cubes sometimes 60 to 80 pounds of potato salad. It probably took me 40 years before I could eat potato salad again.

Laura: Your parents were successful business owners and they showed you from a young age a great example of how to care for your community. How did you get introduced to working in prison ministry?

Brenda: Well, I had, then I would say an unfortunate experience of visiting my brother at the age of eight years old at Angola Prison. And for those of you who don’t know, Angola Prison was pretty notorious back in those days and was known as the bloodiest prison in the United States. So that was my introduction to prison when I visited my oldest brother and I was eight so just imagine the experience through an eight-year-old’s eyes walking in through the prison. And for me, I just thought the corrections officers were really mean. There were no smiles. I didn’t feel welcome there, but it was more important that my brother was there and all I do remember is leaving and he didn’t come home with me, and it was traumatic for me and my other siblings as well. What I remember most of all is my mother would travel 18 hours a couple of times a year to go and visit my brother in Louisiana because at this time, of course, we’re still living in Chicago.

Brenda: My dad had to work so she would drive down there to see my brother. So I remember that. I also remember when they would have these evangelistic events. So he would invite us during special events so we would have time outside the visitation rooms. Like we could actually touch each other and enjoy a meal together. That these men became an extended family for us and we would see them over the years, and I had no fear of them because they were my brother. I knew him. I felt safe with him. So that was the beginning of my experience with prison. I had always been really inquisitive. Thank God for my dad who actually really fed into that. He always answered my questions and I was like, “Well, why did my brother leave home going to the army and how did he end up in prison?” Well, of course, there’s a story there, but he would answer my questions about the issues that people experience. The poor decisions that we make in a moment.

Brenda: So dad really engaged me in that conversation. I continued to ask that question why as I went on through my career as I encountered people and remind you that my dad and mom also taught us you have an obligation to your community. So as I began to volunteer with our councilman, you know, I began to volunteer to register people to vote. Then as I got older I got involved in a community and youth services. I begin to understand how education, how important access to healthcare, physical and mental healthcare, which are significant issues that lead, are precursors to folks going to prison.

Brenda: What I learned was that there was this cradle to prison pipeline that people journey through, and most oftentimes they had absolutely no control over their circumstances or the context in which they made their choices. So that began my journey. So I began to work in early childhood education. I began to get involved in local policymaking bodies when I’m … Once we transitioned to Michigan. The Lord really began to open up my eyes because I kept asking, “Why?” Eventually, I began to work with children and families who were referred for child abuse and neglect, and then I begin to go into the homes. And the story’s almost always were the same. There was abuse, there was drug addiction, there was an absent father and if the father was there he was abusive and he was abusing …So there was a cycle that I began to see.

Laura: How did that lead to your work on the prison reentry initiative?

Brenda: I transitioned to serve on local policymaking bodies where leaders from all over counties would come together to really try to solve these multifaceted issues. It was at that point I began to work Michigan Works as a case manager, and I encountered folks from all walks of life. I will never forget a man coming into my office who was out on parole and he was trying to find a job, and unfortunately, his crime was such that he had to register as a sex offender and all of those laws and policies that prevented him from going certain places. And it’s for our protection of course, but he was told to get a job or else. Well, he came to Michigan Works, which is where he was supposed to come to get a job but we were close to a school and he didn’t know. He almost what you call re-offended and was recharged and sent back to prison because he didn’t know as he was looking for a job that it was the near a school.

Brenda: So I became acutely aware at that point. Again, it’s like, “Okay Lord, I remember that this is very familiar.” So anyway, my boss came to me and she said, “There’s some policy recommendations coming down through the Michigan Work state system called the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative. Will you, as an employee, volunteer? I was volunteer extraordinary. I volunteered so much that my husband questioned me. He was like, “Okay, are you getting paid for any of this?” Because at this point I was a stay at home mom before I went to work for Michigan Works, and I was in college and just finishing my education. So anyway, I said. “Yes.” And she said, “It won’t take a lot of your time.” And a year and a half later, right? And some 60 hours later a week because on top of working part-time this required a lot of work, a lot of research.

Brenda: And at that point, I made recommendations to County Area that they adopt this Michigan Prisoner Reentry Model as a way in which we address the issues of crime in our communities, and that 95% of the men and women who were actually in prison were going to come home. They were going to need to have a welcoming community. They were going to need to have jobs, they were going to need to have housing. And we were going to need to address on the mental, physical health issues that most of the time the mental issues caused them to be there. Many people don’t know that more than 70% of the people in prison have a mental health issue with a co-occurring substance abuse issue. Meaning they having mental health issues and they choose drugs to self-medicate. So in the process of getting the drugs, they commit crimes, they go to prison.

Brenda: So there’s a myriad of issues around that. So that’s how I got involved. We moved to Georgia and as I moved to Georgia, Georgia began looking at reforms that were happening in Michigan. So I started working for Prison Fellowship at that point. When I started I was an area director and I served in four states in the South. My job was to provide programming to men and women in prison. So I had to develop relationships with the Department of Corrections. Well, for me, I had to understand the policies. I had to understand the why’s and who we’re working with, and what their strategic goals were with regard to the programming for men and women in prison. So what I learned because of that was that they were adopting the model from Michigan.

Brenda: So I immediately positioned myself with the Governor’s Office of reentry and said, “I know this work. I know the policies, I know the stakeholders, I know who needs to be at the table.” I said, “For us in Michigan, what we did not realize until later was how vital the church was in this reintegration piece.” So not just because of me, but because of other voices as well they engage the faith community at the beginning.

Laura: Would you say that was a key missing piece?

Brenda: That was the key piece that they included from the beginning, and now Georgia is being looked at from other States as a model for prison reform and reentry collaborations across sectors, right? The faith community partnering with the government and the government partnering with businesses, I mean, because it really takes all of us because it affects all of our communities and it’s going to take all of us to welcome these men and women. A, prepare them, address the issues that got them there. Address the thinking that caused them to commit a crime. Address the sin that’s the source and the foundation of immoral thinking and the subsequent behaviors. That it was going to take all of us to address those issues.

Laura: I’ve heard Georgia has really great reentry rates.

Brenda: Absolutely. Georgia looked at what they called hot zip codes. Where are men and women committed their crimes and where are they coming back to? And they targeted those areas for higher community and housing coordinators in those areas and they had a strategic plan that where this would actually evolve over a certain amount of years. The US Attorney’s Offices are involved. So you have law enforcement who are saying, “We have got to respond to this. There are 2,200,000 women and men in prison. That leaves a humongous hole in our communities, in our families. The incredible resources that are lost because they are not there, reentry is critical. A welcoming community is critical to the successful reintegration of men and women in prison.

Brenda: So the cool thing is from the Christian perspective and our worldview that we are called to restoration and we ourselves have been redeemed, and so we are called to then go out and do the same for others. So if we’re allowed to go in and we do the work in prisons and the transformation of the heart happens, and then that’s followed up by new information which transforms the way they think because the Bible says, “As a man think is that’s the way he’s going to be.” So I don’t care if you’re heart transform, if there’s not a washing of the mind then you will continue that same behavior. So if the church is prepared to receive them, as much as we are prepared to go inside and pour into them, then we have success.

Laura: So how is Crossroads Prison Ministry set up to serve inmates in prison?

Brenda: So Crossroads Prison Ministries, our work is one who connects the men and women in prison to a Christ-centered relationship with a mentor and the Bible study being that connection with them. That’s our role.

Laura: Yeah.

Brenda: Exactly, we want you ready. We know you’re coming home. And most oftentimes to a community near me and I want you different. I want you prepared. I want you to be contributing, and I want you to be able to take care of your family. That’s what we want for you. We see you in the image of God because he created you in his own image, and we as the body of Christ have a responsibility.

Laura: Totally.

Brenda: Right? Because we’ve been redeemed too. Walker Prison, they partner with all of these organizations that then once the men are released at Walker then there’s a church most oftentimes, ideally, that meets them at the gate and walks alongside them in this mentoring relationship. So Crossroads Prison Ministry came to be about a little over 30 years ago when Tom de Vries went into prison, went into jail actually and was doing Bible study with the men and women in jails, but quickly realized that jails were transitional institutions in that while they started the Bible studies and they started the mentor relationships, this was a temporary place for the men and women they were serving and that they would lose connection. So he decided that he wanted to start a correspondence program because the letter and the US Postal Service could go anywhere. Then eventually we grew to serve in now 22 countries around the world. So a total of within the US are 23 centers where we serve men and women in prison.

Brenda: So by serving men and women at prison what we do is we connect those prisoners who we then call students once they join us, they become students of the Bible with a mentor who commits to walk alongside them in this study of the word of God. And something amazing happens because most oftentimes you have two people who are coming together who probably would never meet each other out on the street, right? So you have 60-year-old Sarah who’s been walking with Christ all her life, or 70-year-old Ben who’s been walking with Christ, has a business but retired and now he wants to serve in this incredible mission field connected with Brad who’s been in prison for 10 years. They would not likely meet in this intimate relationship. One thing that I hear from our mentors all the time is, “When I started I was going to help them.” Right? “I was going to share the word of God with them. I was going to love them and it was all about how I was going to pour into them.”

Brenda: What they did not realize was the mutuality of that exchange. That they themselves in preparation for this relationship had to really dig deep into the word of God to prepare to respond to them, but more importantly really had to dig deep inside themselves and understand this different world view, these different experiences in a context in which these men and women live their lives.

Laura: I think it is so easy to forget how impactful it can be to take a little time to pour into others.

Brenda: It’s an incredible experience. The Bible talks about the power of the living letter, right? So once that letter is exchanged and it goes into this place that is oftentimes so dark, so hopeless, and the student receives that letter, and reads that letter, and reads that Bible study, and is engaged in this dialogue with this mentor. They then also can share and do share with other men and women in prison, because prison is a very lonely place. Men and women in prison sometimes … 70% of them don’t receive a visit in a month. Sometimes never. Sometimes never a letter. There are two important times in prison. Mealtime and mail time. So often you have these men and women, sometimes really tough people, who are waiting with bated breath to see if they received any connection from the outside.

Brenda: So our students receive those letters, those Bible studies, and they share them with others. So those letters and those Bible studies are read over and over again. We’re really intentional whether we know it or not. The prison is an incredible mission field and we are so privileged to serve with men and women, our mentors who see the value in that and continuing these relationships for many, many, many years.

Brenda: Mentoring is a best practice with any population, with men and women in prison because it’s the relationships, those good or bad that got them there, right? Those connections that they had on the outside that got them there. Those same relationships are the ones that can transform their thinking and prepare them for coming home, or prepare them for being missionaries in prison. Not everybody’s coming home. So what we know to be true is that there is a viable, vibrant church behind the prison walls. As we prepare and go through these Bible studies and have this exchange, and this relationship, we really are preparing them to lead others.

Laura: During your time in prison ministry has there been a story that has been really impactful to you?

Brenda: Oftentimes we don’t get to see the fruit of our labor but they’re … Sometimes your job is just to plant of seed, right? And you may never see the result of that. I had the privilege of working with Bradley at Walker, and Bradley was across roles prison ministry student as well as he was involved in other programs. Bradley became a leader at Walker Prison and he led core curriculum courses to his peers in prison. He led some of the programs that we offered at the prison. I had the opportunity to meet Bradley at a family day event in prison, not meet him, but meet his father who was a believer and he had been praying for his son. Bradley was a IT professional when he went to prison, and I remember his dad being so grateful for our interactions and intercessions with his son, and he was just such a change to man.

Brenda: So some years later Bradley was released and he through different opportunities was connected to a church. A rather large church in Atlanta, First Baptist Church of Atlanta where Dr. Charles Stanley leads ministry there. When Bradley began to attend the Bible study, the Bible study teacher was so very impressed with the amount of biblical knowledge and practical application knowledge he had, and really began to engage him a little bit more and asked him if he would be a part of leading the Bible study. So today, well, let me go back a little bit because what I want to be really clear is that Bradley was very transparent with leadership about his life experience. He went to them and say, “Okay, you know, I know this word but as a result of my time in prison and I want you to know that’s who I was. That is now who I am.”

Brenda: And he said to me when I talked to him because I asked permission to share his story. He said, “What the leadership responded to me and said is great because this is a place of redemption and we’re all in need of redemption. You are welcome here.” Bradley now co-leads Sunday school at First Baptist Church of Atlanta and I just … This is an incredible story. He just has such a positive attitude, just a willingness to serve because he received so much and he’s so grateful. So that’s the story that we want to … That’s what we want to see happen with 10 million men and women in the world who are in prison. We want those stories of redemption to happen. We want the church to know that it is our responsibility. We are the ones who are called to restoration, just like Christ. We are the ones that’s called to reconciliation and that is our role to work collaboratively and in partnership with others to prepare these men and women that come home.

Laura: What are some common misconceptions people have about others in prison?

Brenda: I want to start with the fact that we don’t see them through the eyes of humanity, right? So if you think about me as an eight-year old child who had a brother, a sibling, to go to prison and my mother and my father saw to it that we were able to visit him. If you think about it in that context, that there was a family who lost a loved one to prison we also are under misconceptions that they’re all just bad people. Some of them come from experiences that are unlike many of ours where they were not protected, it was not a safe home. It was not a safe community. There were not meals that they can rely on every day. There was not a father. I had an incredible father. I’m so grateful for him every day. Sometimes I think about how intentional he was pouring into me. Many people don’t have that and we take those things for granted.

Brenda: It’s not those people over there. When people come to Christ in prison they become who Jesus called them, those brothers and sisters of mine. Those are common misconceptions and lack of understanding. I remember attending a conference with our friends at Wheaton College, it’s called the CMCA Conference. And Dr. Ed Stetzer said something and I kid you not it was an epiphany for me and I was working in prison ministry. He said that the answer to mass incarceration is the mass mobilization of the church. I just remember sitting in my chair it hit me like a ton of bricks because that’s my call is to share the information, share the stories, compel the church to come alongside these men and women in prison, right? And invite them into Christ, and into your church, and into your world and just be prepared for your ability to transform a whole community, a whole generation as a result of that relationship.

Laura: Brenda has a passion for building collaborative, strong, and nurturing communities both inside and outside prison walls. When she’s not at work she enjoys her time at home nurturing her plants and her 26-year marriage to her husband, Robert. For more information on how to get involved at Crossroads Prison Ministries go to

Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura formerly served as the social media manager and designer at the Chalmers Center. She enjoys serving weekly at her local community kitchen and has a desire to see the church build relationships with disenfranchised people. Laura lives in Chattanooga, TN with her husband Tim.

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