The men who study the Bible with John Steeves aren’t your average churchgoers. Dressed in orange prison garb, many await sentencing for burglary, trafficking in narcotics, rape or murder.
But that doesn’t faze Steeves, 83, a World War II veteran and volunteer minister from Neenah, Wis. (pop. 24,507). For nearly 45 years, he has spent three days a week sharing the Gospel and straight talk with inmates at the Winnebago County Jail in nearby Oshkosh.
“I was a high school teacher and had a family of eight to support, so my time was limited. But I thought it was something I could do to serve God,” says Steeves, who responded to a fellow parishioner’s request at his local church to lead Bible studies in the county jail. “That was in ’62, and I’m thankful for the opportunity and heart for this work that God has given me.”
Steeves is undaunted by the fact that nearly 75 percent of the men he counsels return to lives of crime after their release. He believes the Lord gives second chances—and third, fourth and fifth chances as well. He teaches that redemption and salvation are possible if people truly want to change, and accepts the reality that some, sadly, do not.
“Some of them read and understand the Bible very well,” Steeves says. “The trouble is they are good at talking about the Bible, but they aren’t living it. I always stress that they need to walk the talk.”
A soft-spoken, grandfatherly man, Steeves may seem an unlikely candidate for a jail ministry. But as a young U.S. Army recruit, he long ago witnessed mankind at its worst. The young soldier landed on the beach of Normandy, France, in 1944, and was wounded in the D-Day invasion. After recuperating for a month and a half, he fought in three more battles.
“I’ve seen what men like Hitler, who didn’t follow the truth of the Bible, could do,” Steeves says.
Steeves also knows firsthand what a difference that a helping hand can make. When he was 5, his parents broke up, and he was given up for adoption. “The family that took me in was a blessing,” Steeves says. “I could tell God was watching out for me from the beginning.”
Through the years, Steeves has steered many men toward a spiritual path.
Fred Sowatzka, 60, began attending Steeves’ Bible studies in 1971 when he was jailed and battling addictions to drugs and alcohol. “He really changed my life,” says Sowatzka, who even joined his mentor’s church when he was released. Sowatzka since has started a jail ministry of his own and, for the last 12 years, has provided religious guidance at the nearby Outagamie County Justice Center in Appleton, Wis., where he is full-time chaplain director for 550 inmates.
Ed Demler, a chaplain with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, estimates that Steeves’ jail ministry has touched at least 66,000 people. “It’s so inspiring for me to see a man who is so committed,” Demler says. “John never gives up on people.”
Steeves finds great satisfaction in bumping into the inmates he’s helped in the community. “Wherever I go, I run into people who say, ‘Hey sir, remember me from jail?’” Steeves says. “It’s hard for me to remember everyone, but I know that the Lord is working in their lives, and I know that my life has been so worthwhile because of the time I’ve spent in His ministry.”