John Johnson Jr. knows there are two sides to every coin. In fact, he lives it.
For 22 years John has worked as a senior investigator and public defender with the State of Wisconsin, and admits he has seen the worst of human nature. “I’ve been involved with every high profile crime case in a seven county area up here,” he said. “From sexual assaults to homicides to drug cases; at some point I’ve dealt with it in my capacity as a public defender.”
And yet, on a regular basis, he visits area prisons, bringing hope and compassion through his New Life Prison Ministries. He’s well qualified to preach these messages to a population that’s often forgotten by society. With a master of ministry degree in Christian counseling psychology, a doctorate degree in ministry and a bachelor’s degree in chaplaincy, John travels to prisons throughout the northern tier of Wisconsin and Michigan in the belief that he can plant seeds of hope, compassion and forgiveness to inmates who are serving sentences because of the poor choices they have made in their life. “I look at my ministry as planting seeds,” he said. “I plant seeds in the hearts of these men and hopefully they will work with a higher power to make those seeds grow.”
John grew up in Crandon and completed a degree in criminal justice before he was hired by the law offices of the Wisconsin State Public Defender in Rhinelander. A deeply spiritual man, he decided to become an ordained minister when he was in his 20s. Back then, his faith and his work were two completely different worlds and he saw little reason to intermingle them.
And no wonder. John’s duties include investigating crimes in Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Langlade, Forest, Lincoln and Price counties. He is only one of 44 in the state that performs this type of work. His expertise is relied upon when a public defender is assigned to a person who has been accused of a crime but can’t afford to pay for their own counsel. “I do a lot of behind the scenes work,” he said. “Lots of people don’t even know about this type of investigating which needs to be done to try cases fairly.”
However, as the years passed John realized that many of the people he saw moving through the criminal justice system were lost. “Unfortunately it’s a ready made population that really needs spiritual help,” he said.
Then about 12 years ago this kindly minister felt a calling to bring his faith, and a little comfort, to people that society had seemed to discard. “I had decided to open myself up to whatever God had in mind for me,” he said. “I came to realize I was in a unique position to reach out to people in prisons. I could see both sides of the coin.”
John took more religion classes, coming away with his advanced degrees, but it was a graduation requirement that led him into the McNaughton Correctional Camp and changed his perspective on just where he could do the most good with his faith. “I had to complete a practical assignment to graduate from Freedom Bible College and Seminary in Arkansas,” he said. “I decided to start a bible study class at McNaughton.”
Then he was asked to serve as the national director of Freedom Prison Ministries which put him on a journey he never thought possible. Soon he was bringing the Word of God to inmates not only at McNaughton, but also at the Ojibway Correntional facility in Marenisco, Mich., at the Baraga Maximum Security facility in Baraga, Mich, the Stanley Correctional facility, the Jackson Correctional Institution and even an overseas prison ministry in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2008 John founded New Life Prison International and the New Life Christian Chapel which he brings every Saturday morning to the McNaughton facility.
The service is set in the gymnasium and inmates have built a pulpit, a table for a wooden cross and a wooden storage box that contains hymnals, chorus books and a Bible. Music plays a big role in these services and John leads his small congregation by singing and playing a guitar. Any inmate who is musically inclined is invited to play during the service which includes prayer, scripture readings, testimonies and a sermon. John leaves plenty of open time for the inmates to contribute their own feelings, thoughts and requests for prayer. “I do plan a sermon but it isn’t written in stone,” he said. “I find there are lots of teachable moments if you are open to them.” John also offers spiritual counseling and welcomes inmates who express a desire to be forgiven for their crimes.
One of the misconceptions John works hard to overcome is the “jailhouse conversion” perception of the public. “That’s a very real factor in this society,” he said. “There is lots of toxic skepticism out there. People think that many inmates convert when they are in prison and then revert to their old ways once they get out. Some do, but my goal is to bring the love of God to these men, and to let them know that they are children of God and can be forgiven for their sins.”
And that’s another factor John works hard at in his ministry; bringing a sense of forgiveness to men who may have committed murders, sexual assaults and dealt drugs. “Lots of times these men think God has abandoned them,” he said. “But they are not abandoned. I want them to realize that it isn’t God’s fault they are at the place they are in their life. They are in prison because of bad choices they made. I feel it’s my job to show them though, that God is forgiving and all is not lost.”
Walking into a prison could be intimidating for some, but John doesn’t find that so. “I walk into these places with God’s love in my heart and the inmates know it,” he said. “Recently I preached to a group of 40 inmates at Baraga Maximum Prison. I could tell they were tired, stressed out and carrying heavy burdens. One man asked for prayer in dealing with his inability to forgive. This is common but I tell everyone this about forgiveness; that it is the conscientious thought of not necessarily forgetting but giving up the right to get even.”
And while bringing a little solace and comfort to his congregations is important to John, he also believes sharing the Word of God to inmates can be a factor in cutting down on recidivism rates, which results in an even bigger blessing to society as a whole. “These inmates get plenty of materials on what to do when they are released,” he said. “You can preach about attitudes and actions, but what really needs to happen is a change of heart for these men. If that can be influenced, thoughts, and subsequent behaviors will change. Hopefully that will be the fruit of the seeds I plant when all is said and done.”