by Grace Fox
Concrete walls and razor wire. Steven Frey, age 48, stared at his new surroundings and shook his head in disbelief. What in the world is happening to my life? he wondered. He massaged his wrists, thankful that the prison guard had removed the steel handcuffs. God, what are You doing? I don't understand.
Frey had moved from Canada to Mexico in 1998 and settled in an area 350 miles south of the Texas border. A registered nurse, he'd partnered with local churches to hold week-long evangelistic clinics in the outback. He provided medical training for the believers, and they accompanied him to rural villages where they treated up to 100 patients daily. After each day's clinic closed, they held an evening service and presented the Gospel message. As a result, men and women were finding healing for both physical and spiritual needs.
In August 2003, Frey traveled to the United States where he restocked medications and clinical supplies. On his return trip to Mexico, he stopped at the border as he'd done numerous times before. He was familiar with the security process that included searches by gun-toting young soldiers. At first, this occasion appeared to be like others in the past - soldiers unloaded his van, scrutinized the contents, and then reloaded it. But things took an unusual turn when they confiscated his vehicle, placed him in one of theirs, and drove him to a border security office.
Nearly eight hours passed as Frey waited and wondered what was happening. The wait ended when authorities handcuffed Frey and delivered him to a six-foot by ten-foot holding cell shared by nine drunks. With only two concrete benches in the room, most occupants sat or slept on the floor. A filthy bathroom was located at the back of the enclosure. There was neither ventilation nor drinking water, so the heat felt unbearable. This whole thing will blow over in a couple of hours, thought Frey.
He was wrong. Two days later Frey, severely dehydrated and fearing that his kidneys would soon shut down, received word that he was being charged with importing an illegal substance. His clinical supplies had included cough syrup that contained pseudoephedrine, an ingredient considered by Mexican authorities to be a psychotropic drug. "It was ironic," says Steven. "Anyone in Mexico can buy cough syrup with the same ingredient, but the authorities decided to charge me and send me to the federal penitentiary in Reynosa."
The media caught wind of the missionary gringo being charged with drug trafficking and launched a smear campaign. Each time the authorities moved Frey, he was handcuffed, marched through a crowd of heckling reporters, and forced to stand displaying his prison identification number while photographers snapped his picture from various angles. Another 24 hours passed in the holding cell, and then Frey was transported after dark, at gunpoint, to the penitentiary. Entering the prison gate, he saw the concrete wall and razor wire. "I knew this might be my home for a long, long time," says Frey. "A federal charge such as this meant a prison term of possibly 13 years."
Frey's circumstances were frightening but in the midst of them he recognized God's sovereignty and care. For instance, new prisoners were usually put in a cell built to hold four people but crammed with 20 or more. Tension and filthy living conditions led to flared tempers, beatings, and stabbings. For no apparent reason, guards kept Frey in the infirmary for the first several days. This provided sanitary living conditions and safety from potential attackers.
The day after his arrival, Frey was given permission to shower. He undressed and, wishing to protect his belongings from being stolen by other inmates, placed his clothing and a small pouch containing less than fifteen dollars on a window ledge. To his dismay, however, someone outside reached up and snatched them. Left with nothing to wear, Frey wondered God, what do I do now? Within minutes, Frey's clothing reappeared albeit minus the money.
This prison held approximately 3,000 inmates. Frey was eventually assigned to a cell with nine men. All were born again believers who'd placed their faith in Christ after their incarceration. One of them, Pastor Miguel, was a former enforcer for a major drug cartel and responsible for the murder of numerous men. Now he was leading a daily worship service and prayer time, shepherding hundreds of fellow inmates in their faith.
On the outside, Frey's family and friends rallied to secure his release. They approached government officials from the United States and Canada, hoping to find someone who understood the politics behind his imprisonment and would be willing to use his influence to help. Those efforts proved futile. They hired a lawyer who, after charging more than $50,000, proved to be dishonest. However, a Canadian Christian journalist picked up Frey's story and spread the word via television. Christian magazines published his plight. And people around the world began praying and contributing funds.
Frey admits to riding an emotional rollercoaster during that time. "When I first arrived at the prison, I was on a spiritual high. I said, 'God, this is totally unjust. I haven't a clue what You're doing but I see Your hand in this,'" he says. "But as time passed I grew discouraged by the razor wire and guard towers, the crushing boredom of daily life within those walls, and news of unsuccessful attempts to free me. The circumstances surrounding my arrest were ludicrous, and the thought of giving thousands of dollars to a slippery palm rather than to a useful cause weighed on me. About two months into this experience, I hit a very low point." Frey felt crushed spiritually and emotionally, but he was not defeated. Rather, he found hope and strength by seeing God at work within the confines of the prison walls.
Every morning approximately 100 inmates attended a worship service held in a church building on site. About 40 prisoners attended a Bible study each afternoon. Evenings found 60 or 70 inmates from each cell block standing in a circle, holding hands, and kneeling to pray for a half hour prior to being locked in for the night.
During Frey's stay, an evangelistic campaign was held by local believers. Speakers and musicians led services for five hours, and hundreds of outsiders were allowed entry to minister to the inmates.
"The prison used to be a drug-infested hell hole," says Frey. "It had also been a co-ed institution in which the prison guards pimped the female inmates. But God completely transformed the atmosphere as inmates came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Seeing God at work in a desperate, dark place brought hope to Frey. As one day rolled into the next, he began realizing that God was working not only in his surroundings, but in his own life. "My imprisonment gave me a compassionate heart," says Frey. "Now I understand what these people are going through, cockroaches and all. It also helped me understand how God can protect us, and how He can transform a man such as Pastor Miguel was - a murderer, an enforcer, a bloody man - into the godly, wise, gentle man that he is today.
But there was more - I gained a deeper appreciation for what Jesus did on my behalf." "Jesus was identified with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the outcasts. Men cursed Him, spat on Him, blasphemed Him, and then murdered Him as a criminal. Despite all this, He never protested because of His innocence."
In a letter written from prison, Frey wrote: "Friends, this is a difficult thing that Jesus asks of me, but I've gained an understanding of what He became for me. It is really a small thing that I am handcuffed, transported by gunpoint, and called a drug trafficker. It is nothing that I am behind bars and razor wire with 'Federal' stamped behind my name. This is all less than nothing when compared with what my Jesus has done for me."
Eventually a doctor in the States heard of Frey's situation and came to his defense. One morning Frey was told to get his things ready because he was being released. A day later, on December 2, he was put on a truck at gunpoint and driven to a security office where officers demanded to see his passport and paperwork. Frey tried to reason with the men, explaining that his documents had been taken. Just as it looked as though he would be re-arrested, the doctor and Frey's father burst into the room and demanded his release. The officers complied, and Frey went home after spending 106 days in prison.
Frey shares his story in a quiet, thoughtful tone. He believes God could have prevented it from happening but chose not to because He had a purpose in mind. "I learned much through it," says Frey, "but I think there's more to it. The purpose isn't complete yet. I believe God has called me to cross-cultural ministry and I'm looking forward to more opportunities. It will be interesting to see how God puts it all together."
This article appeared in Power for Living, June 28, 2009.
Used by the author's permission.