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
The first semester went by fast, and our communications with Steve
were full of the usual college fun. However, it became apparent that
Steve wasnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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 Steves panicked voice. He was in the Gwinnett County Jail
for armed robbery. We couldnt 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 Steves 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 cant 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 didnt 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 Im 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 Steves 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 Gods hands.
We finally got the call at the end of Steves 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 hadnt 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 couldnt 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 Mothers and Fathers
Days 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 Steves 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 Steves
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
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 wasnt 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.
Editors note: Steve Bilsland enrolled at Central Bible College
in the fall of 1998 and earned an associates degree in Bible.
He is currently completing bachelors degrees at Evangel University
in Bible and business. He married Amy Marshall in December 2000. Steves
youth pastor from Atlanta, Mike Ennis, now serving as a vice president
of Convoy of Hope, performed the ceremony. The Bilslands 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