Kalamazoo Jail Ministry offers 'radical acceptance,' resources, and hope

Editor's Note: This story is part of our Faith in Action series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly, there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were open, and everyone’s chains were loosed.”     Acts 16:25-26

KALAMAZOO, MI — Even though he taught philosophy and world religions to college students, Jeff Grupp was an atheist. His life felt empty, hopeless, and dark. 

“I was deeply depressed, even suicidal,” Jeff says. “That was in 2014.”

If Grupp had no faith in a higher power, his wife Amy was the opposite.

“I was always a believer,” she says. “I grew up that way. But my faith was strengthened in 2013 when I joined a prayer group. One month, we challenged ourselves to pray for someone hard to love. That felt different — and Jeff saw a big change in me at that point.”

Jeff Grupp nods, glancing over at his wife. “I saw miracles in her. Honestly, I got scared of her.”

Amy Grupp felt a bit hurt that her husband kept making fun of her faith. He would tease her that she believed in something that wasn’t there. In response to his teasing, Amy challenged him to pray one prayer, and if that prayer was answered, he would know there was a God. 

Jeff took up the challenge. 

“I sat in my car and prayed,” he says. “I’m talking to You! If You exist. I hate my life. Everything is a struggle. If You’re real, everyone would need to know it. If You’re real, I won’t believe until I see You. That’s what I require.”

A prayer answered

Seemingly, the world remained quiet around the man sitting in his car and praying. Yet somehow Jeff felt a strange elation. For the first time in a long time, he felt a sense of hope. Another year would pass, but then he began to have dreams of a car crash. 

Soon after those dreams, Amy Grupp and their four children were in a devastating car crash. Only Jeff was not in the car. He was sitting in the dark basement of the Grupp house when the crash happened. 

“That was the night I became a Christian,” he recalls. “Because that was the night that I had a vision — an angel, some kind of presence, came to me and spoke to me, saying that she was a messenger from God. And I learned that my family was safe in that crash.”

“Everything about him changed,” Amy says. 

So much so, in fact, that Jeff returned to school to earn a degree at a seminary and took a position as pastor at a church in Tecumseh, Michigan. But his calling was not complete. Sometime in 2017, the Grupps searched for a ministry that would take them to those most often forgotten, who arguably needed divine guidance the most. 

Both natives of Kalamazoo, the Grupps decided to return to their original home — and as if to confirm that they were on the right path, they found a house on the very same street where they had once lived. The home, Jeff says, was “strangely underpriced.”

Creating a new ministry

The greatest need for ministry, the Grupps found, was among inmates, living behind bars in jails. The Grupps spent time at jails in Grand Rapids, Van Buren County, and Kalamazoo. For Jeff, it was due to a paid position, while Amy accompanied him as a volunteer chaplain. Jeff ministered to male inmates and Amy to female inmates. 

While the Kalamazoo County Jail at 1500 Lamont in Kalamazoo had had a ministry for nearly 50 years, changes were underway, and the Grupps received the blessing of County Sheriff Richard Fuller to bring in a new ministry. In August 2023, Jeff and Amy established the Kalamazoo Jail Ministry (KJM). 

“Up until then, the ministry had been more about passing out items the inmates requested — playing cards, magazines, paper and pencils, hygiene items. But we wanted to get in there and sit with people, pray with them, talk with them, hear their stories in their darkest moments,” Jeff says. 

The Grupps were given a room on the lower floor of the jail where they stacked shelves full of not only Bibles but books of all kinds. In January 2024, they began the work of KJM. 

“It’s all about listening to people,” Amy says. “I go into the jail with my Bible and a box of tissues, because I’m always crying when I listen to the women. I often meet women who feel a great deal of shame, and they want forgiveness. I also see women struggling with anger issues, and we talk about that. We cry together, we pray together. I see people change so much during their time here. We see miracles here every day.”

“We don’t push religion at all,” Jeff adds. “We have magazines, art books, whatever they need. Our job is to serve and to love. We have radical acceptance for everyone. The first reaction when we approach an inmate can often be anger — they don’t want to talk with us. But that changes when they understand we aren’t here to judge. We all sin.”

Beyond the bars

The Grupps say they have seen recidivism, often because those released from jail return to a world where they have no funds to restart their lives, no family or friends, no shelter, no transportation, no education. Time served doesn’t end at the jail door, says Jeff Grupp. "Some of them are released and they walk out, and no one is waiting for them. They have nowhere to go.”

The Grupps hope to expand KJM to help inmates after their release, not just while sitting behind bars. They are beginning to flesh out plans to establish halfway houses, provide more opportunities for rehabilitation, meet other day-to-day needs, and break down obstacles to living a productive life. 

“Most of the people here are the poorest of the poor,” Amy says. “If they hurt others, they have often first been hurt themselves. Sometimes we hear about their families going hungry because their main breadwinner is now in jail, so we may bring groceries to those families. And we often stay in touch even after their release.”

“People here, everything is stripped away when they are brought here,” Jeff says. “They come in here with nothing — lost, broken, poor — so this is that time when they begin to realize who they really are. We see God deliver revelation to many. It’s like an earthquake in them that melts the bars.”

KJM is fully donor-supported. Donations may be made to KJM online or by mailing a check to Kalamazoo Jail Ministry at 1500 Lamont, Kalamazoo, MI, 49048. For more information, email Jeff Grupp at Jeffg@kalamazoojailministry.org or view videos of their work online.
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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.