By Peter K. Johnson*



God reached down into Tom Stevensí cell and changed his life.


Tom Stevens sat on the edge of the bed in his cell in the Norfolk County (Mass.) Jail, staring at the gray granite walls. The year was 1977. He was facing a stiff prison sentence for armed robbery and assault to commit murder and was angry and confused. "The anger was like a piece of steel sitting in my gut," he says.

Tomís burly 6-foot-4 frame made the cell look smaller than it was. One light bulb rested against the wall by the steel bars. The cell contained a bed, toilet, sink and table.

With nothing else to read, he opened the Bible his wife, Kathy, had given to him. She had become a born-again Christian and visited him regularly with friends from her church. Annoyed, Tom had told her: "Donít bring those holy rollers here."

Kathy had prayed relentlessly for Tom. When she spotted Christian symbols on cars or on houses, she waited on sidewalks and porches for the owners. "Are you a Christian?" she would ask when they showed up. "Would you pray for my husband? Heís in jail. I know the Lord will touch his life if enough people pray for him."

As Tom turned to Matthew 7:7, he read: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (NIV). The passage clicked; it reminded him of a secular song.

He then read John 3 where Nicodemus questioned Jesus about the meaning of being born again. Like a laser beam the Holy Spirit pierced the wall of unbelief surrounding Tomís spiritual understanding. Bowing his head, Tom prayed out loud: "God, if You are God, if Jesus is Your Son, if this Bible is Your Word and I must be born again ó whatever that is ó if these things are all true, I have no choice but to accept Your Son as my Savior."

"I accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior," he says. "I told God I would serve Him for the rest of my life. But I didnít feel anything. Nothing."

But he did stop cursing and passing around marijuana at night to other inmates.

Tom dove into the Bible like a starving grizzly hunting salmon. He read daily outside of his cell in "the flats" on the bottom tier of the cellblock. He questioned other inmates, "Why didnít anybody tell me this before? No one ever told me about this God of love." They began to avoid him because of his size and violent reputation.

Several months later Tom heard his sentence: 15-30 years. "The judge read the riot act to me," he says.

Deputies drove him shackled in leg and waist irons to the maximum-security prison MCI-Walpole, where he received a hostile reception. An official told the county deputies to bring him back on Monday because processing new prisoners on Friday afternoon was against policy. The deputies answered, "If you donít take him, weíll handcuff him to the gate." The prison guards accepted him.

An inmate invited him to a fellowship meeting. Tom needed teaching and discipling. "I didnít have an understanding of what being a born-again Christian was all about," he says. He accepted the invitation when he learned coffee was being served.

At the meeting he met Jim Spence and two other volunteers from Wellesley Park Assembly of God in Wayland, Mass. Tom connected with Spence, who began mentoring him. Tom showed up Monday nights from then on and attended every chapel service. "He was spiritually hungry," Spence says.

The Assemblies of God church in Coventry, R.I. (now Lighthouse Christian Center, West Greenwich, R.I.) supported Tomís Berean School of the Bible correspondence studies for three years. "I completed every course except womenís ministries," he says.

As Tom grew in his relationship with the Lord, he began conducting Bible studies and chapel services for as many as 80 inmates. He applied for Christian worker papers and was interviewed in prison by the superintendent of the Southern New England District of the Assemblies of God.

In 1984 Tom became a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God. After being transferred to another correctional facility, he asked permission to start a Bible study. No one showed up on the first day; the second time, five men joined. After six weeks attendance was 34. He loved to preach.

Tom pursued outcasts. "I prayed that God would let me see people how He sees them," he says. He led a former policeman, convicted of murdering his wife, to a saving knowledge of Jesus. The policeman first noticed Tom and three other inmates praying over their lunch. Despondent over serving a life sentence, the man poured out his heart to Tom. "You need to trust somebody outside yourself," Tom told him. Within 15 minutes, Tom led him in the sinnerís prayer.

After serving seven and one-half years and enduring six parole hearings, Tom was released from prison on July 1, 1985. Learning how to be a husband, father and provider again was a challenge. Tom joined his family in church and became part of the Royal Rangers program.

Kathy and the children moved to Illinois to work in a church in 1986. A year later they moved to New York where Tom served as executive director of a recovery ministry for seven years. In 1994 he returned to Massachusetts to work for his friend and mentor, Jim Spence, as program director of The Bridge House, a ministry to ex-offenders.

Spence says, "Tom changed from being a hardened criminal to a person with a tender heart."

"I do what I love to do and get paid for it," Tom says. "I get to minister to men who come out of the same situation I did. Every once in a while God lets me see a profound change in a manís life through Jesus. Itís such a joy to know God uses me."


*Peter K. Johnson lives in Milltown, N.J.


The Tom Stevens family attends First Assembly of God in Worcester, Mass. (David C. Crabtree, pastor).