Heidi Cerneka

Year Joined MKLM: 1996-2014, 2017
Country: Kenya
City:  Nairobi
Focus:  Incarcerated women and human rights
Project(s):  Catholic Prison Chaplaincy and CLEAR (Christian Legal Education Aid and Research)
People Served: Incarcerated Women and Urban Refugees

Project Goal(s):  To help women involved in the criminal justice system, human trafficking, and domestic violence

Current Ministry:

Heidi’s current ministry in Kenya will continue her work with justice-involved women, engaging with local organizations in Mombasa and Nairobi. She will use her law degree to work with pastoral and legal projects to help women involved in the criminal justice system, especially with paralegal and self-representation programs that train them to be their own advocates in their criminal cases.

Kenya does not have public defenders, so considering that most people in prison have very limited economic resources, they generally end up without a lawyer to defend them in court. Training prisoners to speak up in court, to be their own advocate, not only gives them a better chance of a fair trial, but it also gives them courage and self-confidence that lasts far beyond their court case.

For over 20 years, Heidi has worked with incarcerated women, offering accompaniment and advocacy right in the prisons with the women, as well as advocating for justice policies that contemplate women’s unique situations and advocating for a world where prison is not the answer for injustices. She reflects, “Prison is the place where I most feel the presence of God. When you strip a person of everything else—family, home, job, freedom, and more—sometimes all she has left is her faith and her God and she holds tenaciously to that. I often hear pastoral ministers say that they visit prisons because it is our call to bring Jesus to the prisons. I believe that Jesus is there long before we are, and our job is to meet him there in the people that we visit.”

Personal Data:

Heidi claims both St. Louis, MO, and Chicago, IL, as home. She joined MKLM in 1996. Before that, she worked in campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago. She also has experience working with women in situations of substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, Heidi spent two years in Belize working with the Jesuit Volunteers. Heidi received her degrees at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN (BA in Religious Studies [1987]), and Loyola University Chicago (Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies [1991] and Juris Doctor [2017]).

Past MKLM Ministry:

As a Maryknoll lay missioner, Heidi lived and worked in São Paulo, Brazil. She served with both the National Prison Pastoral Ministry—associated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference—as well as with a nongovernmental organization, the Institute for Land, Work, and Citizenship (ITTC). Heidi worked on public policy and human rights issues for all people in prison, and for their families, but she developed a specific ministry with women in prison, because women are generally overlooked in prison policy and advocacy. She provided direct pastoral support to women prisoners through regular visits, and she networked with local, state and national governmental and nongovernmental organizations. They effected change in the treatment of women, the hearing of their cases, and opportunities for alternative sentencing, and at the same time, addressed larger issues related to crime, drug, and human trafficking, identifying patterns that repeat from country to country. Additionally, Heidi participated in United Nations expert working groups to develop Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of women (Bangkok Rules), and the revision of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of all prisoners (Mandela Rules).