Free indeed

By Vetra K. Bilsland



My husband, Richard, and I met at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., in 1965. We married in 1966 and moved to Des Moines in 1968 where we attended First Assembly. We wanted to start a family, but by 1969, following many tests, it was apparent that a pregnancy was not going to happen. We began to seek a child for adoption.

Iíll never forget the call from our attorneyís office telling me that our baby boy had been born early Monday morning, November 17. We went to the hospital when Steve was 3 days old and picked up this darling blue bundle to take home. No baby was ever more welcome. Steve was the center of our universe. Richard and I knew that he was divinely directed to our family, and we had a profound sense of responsibility toward the Lord for this precious life. Our family continued to grow. We adopted another baby boy, Michael, and then had the wonderful surprise of giving birth to our daughter, Julie.

In 1987, with a decline in the farming economy, we moved to Atlanta. Steve had to adjust to a fast-paced metropolitan environment, but he and Michael became involved in the Calvary Assembly youth group, where Dennis Lacy is senior pastor. Their youth pastor, Mike Ennis, had a tremendous influence on Steve, Michael and Julie. By that time, David, another surprise, was born.

Steve had accepted Jesus as his Savior as a child when he was in a Good News Club with his Grandma Bilsland. At an A/G youth camp in Iowa when he was about 12, he sensed God calling him into the ministry and continued to feel this strong pull throughout his teenage years. In 1990, following high school graduation, we took Steve to a Bible college. We felt so good leaving him there, remembering our experiences at Central Bible College.

The first semester went by fast, and our communications with Steve were full of the usual college fun. However, it became apparent that Steve wasnít applying himself to his studies. He failed most of his classes. Disappointed, we told him he had to return home. I went to the school and helped him pack. As disappointed as Richard and I were, we didnít fully realize how this failure impacted Steve.

Shortly after coming home, Steve moved into an apartment with some guys. He had a new girlfriend and new friends whom we did not know at all. He would come by the house from time to time to "borrow" some money and get some clothes or food. By late 1991, Steve looked gaunt and unkempt. On Labor Day weekend, I asked him if he and his girlfriend would come over for a family picnic. He came alone. When he arrived, his clothes were so dirty I told him to get in the shower and then took his clothes to wash and dry while he was getting cleaned up. He said that he couldnít stay for dinner and asked his dad for some money. I filled some bags with groceries and he left.

At approximately 2 a.m., our telephone rang. Richard answered the phone to hear Steveís panicked voice. He was in the Gwinnett County Jail for armed robbery. We couldnít believe our ears. He begged us to come and bail him out of jail. As much as it hurt, we told Steve he would have to remain in jail.

Steve told us that he got together with his girlfriend and another male friend after leaving our house. They pooled their money and proceeded to get drunk. Somewhere in the fogginess of alcohol, it was decided it was a good idea to rob a nearby sandwich shop. Steve had a broken BB gun that looked like a revolver. He went into the shop and demanded the money while the friend waited in the car. When they tried to drive away, the car hit a curb and an axle broke. The friend fled. Steve knew he was in way over his head. He sat on the curb and waited for the police.

Steve remained jailed while his trial date approached. We hoped for the best. His court-appointed lawyer and the district attorney had agreed that, as a first-time offender, Steve could be paroled and released with time served if the sandwich shop owner would sign an agreement. But the night before Steveís court appearance the shop was robbed again. The owner now refused to sign anything. The judge proclaimed Steve guilty of all charges and sentenced him to the mandatory five years of prison without any chance of parole or probation. Steve was led out of the courtroom. It was over so fast. It was so cold and final. I got to my car, tears flowing.

I really canít remember the drive home, but the phone was ringing when I came into the house. I rushed to answer it. It was Steve. He was allowed one call before being taken to the prison induction center. He was crying. He was so scared. He didnít know what was ahead of him. I realized I needed to be strong for him, even though I was a total basket case myself. I prayed for the right words to say to him. I told Steve that his life did not belong to him, to me or to the State of Georgia. His life belonged to the Lord, and the Lord would be with him no matter where he should be placed. No one could do anything to Steve that the Lord did not allow because Steve belonged to Jesus. "I know, Mom," he said, "but Iím so scared." I told him that I was scared too, but I trusted the Lord. He told me that he would be taken to an evaluation center and we would not be allowed any contact with him until we heard from him. We prayed, and he hung up.

About three weeks later, we finally received Steveís call and rushed to see him that Saturday. It was a sobering experience. The prison induction center also served as a holding area for capital punishment inmates. The building that housed the electric chair was in view of the building where we visited Steve. When we first saw Steve, he looked scared and childlike. He told us about the evaluation process he had been going through and that he might be sent to Alto Prison, one of the worst prisons in Georgia. He was truly afraid. Richard and I prayed with Steve. We went home with a sense of dread.

Even as I prayed that God would spare Steve from going to Alto, I continued to pray that He would do the best for my son. I trusted God to keep Steve safe. We, as his parents, could no longer ensure his safety. But we knew that God loved Steve even more than we did; his life was totally in Godís hands.

We finally got the call at the end of Steveís evaluation period. He had been assigned to a prison farm in Jackson County, Georgia. We were thrilled. The town was about 70 miles from us and we would be allowed to visit him for two hours each weekend. It was truly an answer to our prayers. A couple of weeks later, we all excitedly made the trip. We were so thankful for the small town and rural setting we were seeing. We got to the prison, a very small facility with unimposing security fences, and met a congenial prison staff.

We hadnít seen Steve for several weeks. Walking through the door with the guard, he looked like a prisoner of war. He had lost considerable weight. He was already skinny, and now he looked anorexic with huge bags under his eyes. He explained how scared he had been that he was going to go to Alto Prison and couldnít eat or sleep worrying about it. He was so happy to see us, and we were so happy to see him. It was truly a blessing from the Lord.

The years passed. We trekked off as a family either on Saturday or Sunday and every holiday visiting period. We became a very familiar group on these visiting days. Julie would come home from college for summer or the holidays and off we would go to see Steve. When family came to visit from out of town we would take them to visit. Five Christmases, five Thanksgivings, five birthdays, five Motherís and Fatherís Days Ė all came and went with Steve separated from us.

One Saturday, quite early in the five-year sentence, I arrived for the usual Saturday visit. Steve had become very active with the prison ministry and the chaplain. He told me that his Aunt Marlene, from Des Moines, had started a subscription sending him the Pentecostal Evangel every week and how this magazine was such an inspiration for him. [See sidebar.] He loved the articles and used them as discussions with his chaplain and a new friend, Hansel Wilson, whom he met through an outside Baptist Prison Ministry.

I was also gaining a deeper trust and walk with the Lord. Steve and I became very close as mother and son and became spiritual partners as well. As Steveís sentence dragged on and our every attempt to have it shortened was thwarted, I began to trust that God knew what was best for my son. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make as a parent. No matter what happened from that time forward, I would not question or complain. There was going to be total trust that the best would be done for Steve.

During those five years we watched Steve grow into a strong, mature Christian man. We saw the respect and honor that was given to him by his fellow inmates and even the guards. During the last two years of his sentence he became the No. 1 trustee, and ran the prison store. This was the top honor for an inmate. He and other inmates became certified, licensed firemen, and Steve won honors for performance in fire fighting in Jackson County. To this day, the fire chief calls us wanting to know how Steve is doing. Steve led countless fellow inmates to the Lord. One of those men, Jason, spent most of his life in youth detention and then in prison. Jason still comes to our home and takes care of all our carpentry, electrical and plumbing jobs just to pay back to Steveís family for what Steve shared with him about the Lord Jesus Christ.

I can never forget the Labor Day weekend when we thought we had lost Steve. It was another Labor Day weekend when we were notified that Steve would be released from prison on that Sunday morning. We left the house about 6:30 a.m. and took the now-familiar ride to Jackson County Prison. As we walked in, the guards were all standing there. Several had been crying. There was Steve. They had thrown him a big party. There was cake, presents, farewell cards and grown, hardened men crying their eyes out. We heard the most incredible compliments about Steve. As we walked out to the car, I was crying and Richard and Steve were beaming. From the car, we could see all the inmates looking out the office window at us, crying and waving their hands at Steve. I will always see those faces.

Yes, Steve had to serve five years in prison. Yes, we suffered as a family. But I want to tell the whole world that God had His hand entirely with Steve. The miracle for Steve wasnít that he got to leave prison earlier than he was sentenced. The miracle was that God took a terribly scarred life and made a godly man out of my son. God took a kid who had no direction and made him totally sure of himself and his mission to serve the Lord.


This is not the end of the story. This is only the beginning.


Editorís note: Steve Bilsland enrolled at Central Bible College in the fall of 1998 and earned an associateís degree in Bible. He is currently completing bachelorís degrees at Evangel University in Bible and business. He married Amy Marshall in December 2000. Steveís youth pastor from Atlanta, Mike Ennis, now serving as a vice president of Convoy of Hope, performed the ceremony. The Bilslandsí first child, Josiah Ray, was born in March this year. Steve and Amy have served in youth ministry and believe God has called them to a pastoral ministry upon graduation.