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Retired schoolteacher Wanda Nava volunteers in prisons and youth camps.

Since childhood, Wanda I. Nava has been interested in other cultures and curious about people who didn’t look or live like she did. Then God began prompting her to consider “people not like me” in a place she hadn’t thought of: prison. Although it took awhile for her to get on track, she now has ministered in correctional facilities for nearly 23 years.

“My mindset had been ‘do the crime, do the time,’” says Nava, 68. “I didn’t see prisoners as a people group needing Jesus.” But in 1988, a friend suggested they go to a prison to sing. Nava says she heard a still, small voice urging her to go.

Yet she resisted regular volunteer ministry for a decade with a list of reasons: her art teaching career, raising children, living too far away, and a variety of activities. Her husband, Kevin, didn’t express support for her going into penitentiaries. But after a relocation, she lived within sight of Ozark Correctional Center (OCC) in Fordland, Missouri.

As God spoke through people and circumstances, Wanda prayed that Kevin would react positively. After their former pastor recommended a volunteer training through Prison Fellowship for an event, Kevin agreed.

The couple started attending James River Church (JRC) in Ozark in 2000. When church leaders suggested Wanda start an official prison ministry team, she gladly accepted. Kevin also responded, joining the team as Wanda coordinated volunteers ministering at Springfield’s Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, the Greene County Justice Center, the county jail, and OCC.

The volunteers included Priscilla Edwards, who taught Living Free curriculum at OCC until age 89. Edwards is thankful that Wanda encouraged her to volunteer, and so are many former inmates, several of whom now serve on Springfield’s Freedom City Church leadership team.

Following Kevin’s death from cancer, Wanda continued ministering. Grief, complicated by financial concerns and the demands of her teaching job, threatened to overwhelm. The hard period, however, helped her relate to prisoners in seemingly hopeless circumstances. Determined to persevere, she prayed, Lord, I’m here because You called me here.

Meanwhile in 2007, ordained Assemblies of God minister Frank Miller Reynolds, a volunteer at South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri, reached out for a replacement upon his retirement. Phillip Nava accepted the call to replace Reynolds, who served as the first national Teen Challenge representative. Wanda and Kevin had joined the team in 2005. As Wanda kept serving after Kevin’s death, Phillip, whose wife had died, started attending JRC.

Phillip began hospice ministry in 2006 and prison ministry in 2007. After Wanda attended grief counseling, she and Phillip joined a life group and wed in 2011. Wanda completed classes through the Southern Missouri Ministry Network School of Ministry and Global University in 2017, obtained certification in 2018, and ordination and chaplaincy endorsement in 2020.

Wanda retired in 2015 from a teaching career that began in Yokohama, Japan, and ended in southwest Missouri. Wanda has turned the JRC prison ministry team over to new leaders, but she continues prison ministry through Agape Zoe Firebrands, a nonprofit ministry she started. She also teaches an elementary Sunday School class plus a youth class at Upton Peace Chapel.

Another ministry opportunity came when the Galena, Missouri, Young Life group needed a counselor for female campers at Clearwater Cove Young Life Camp in Lampe. Wanda had experience with camp as a teacher and had seen the challenges faced by rural youth. She served as a counselor in 2021 and 2022.

“For two years in a row, Galena was facing not being able to send female students to camp,” says Greg A. Stone, associate regional director for Young Life in southern Missouri. “Because Wanda stepped up, several high school girls were able to have a good camp experience and learn more about the gospel.”

PHOTO: Priscilla Edwards (left) worked in prison ministry with Wanda Nava.

Cynthia J Thomas

Cynthia J. Thomas worked for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions for six years before becoming primary caregiver for her father, a World War II veteran. She has served as a counselor for victims of domestic violence and women facing crisis pregnancies. Cindy and her husband, Phil, a schoolteacher, volunteer in youth outreach and have three adult children and one granddaughter.