If you saw Ernie Eads and Willie Johnson waiting in line for prison chow, standing erect in their khaki uniforms to be counted or shooting hoops on the outside recreation yard, you'd probably assume they were just like all the 1,700-1,800 men incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth.
After all, they've both been in several prisons and jails for more than a decade and their criminal convictions -— gun-related charges and drug crimes — aren't that different from many others.
But, sitting across from the tall 60-year-old white man with his white beard and the shorter 43-year-old black man with neatly braided cornrows tied back, you might change your mind.
That is, once you start listening to their passionate and sometimes eloquent words.
Or, while watching their animated faces as they quote a few verses from the King James Bible. Or, as they explain why they've spent the last two years writing and re-writing 30-50-page papers for studies at Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary, or struggled through textbooks as they had to reread words to fully grasp theological implications.
But, they’ve found motivation to complete a program seminary offered at the prison through volunteer faculty and two USP chaplains who taught classes once or twice a week the past two years.
For Eads, it was to “acquire more answers for questions you will have to answer as a Christian,” he noted, quoting I Peter 3:15, about being “ready always to give an answer to every man that asked you a reason of the hope that is in you.”
Johnson said his motivation was to become a “better student of God’s word, to become a disciple.”
First, he said, you have to learn “what it is to be a man,” and the process “teaches you to humble yourself, to become obedient to Him.” More over, he added, God’s law supersedes man’s, and following it will make you a “better citizen.”
Both men know that some will scoff about “jailhouse conversions,” but they are adamant theirs is not “jailhouse religion.”
Eads said jailhouse religion “gives Jesus a bad name.”
“Knowing Jesus isn’t religion, it’s a relationship," he said. "If you’re not changed, you’ve probably just got some religion.”
Eads' beliefs encourage him to tell “people about Jesus, no matter what I’m doing.” His environment may make that simpler, since for a year he's been a clerk in the chapel library, checking out DVDs and books, among other chores.
Johnson works in the UNICOR print shop and helps with the prison basketball league. He, too, is familiar with the idea of jailhouse religion, of people trying to bargain with God, reasoning, “If I serve you, God, if I go to church, if I pray every day, will you let me out?”
But, he contends service to God is vital "because he is God."
“Your true character is not who you are when you’re with other people, it’s who you are when you’re by yourself, in solitude," Johnson said.
Not that solitude is the easiest commodity in prison.
Both men have cellmates.
Johnson said he can be alone when his cellmate is at work. Or, if Johnson is reading the Bible and his cellmate is in the cell, too, “He respects that.”
"I read, I study, I pray, and at night time, I’m talking to the Lord," he said. "I ask Him to reveal to me. I’m still a work in progress.”
Eads recalls his own reactions when he was first sent to prison when he was 38. He was in a county jail first. And then, “I cried out to God, and I read the Bible. Then I got this life sentence and I threw that Bible away. My genie didn’t work.”
It was only when he was at a prison in Florida about a decade later that he thinks he actually “got it.”
He remembers a “big black guy at Coleman, and he was yelling, ‘Jesus loves me and I love Jesus.’  That changed my mind.”
It wasn’t that Eads didn’t have early exposure to religion and matters of faith.
“All this time, I thought I was a Christian,” he said. He went to church and he’d been baptized —  baptized three times, in fact.
But, during all that time he was attending church, and even while immersed in the drug culture that led to his imprisonment, “No one said Christians don’t do what you’ve been doing. That’s why it’s bothersome.”
That’s also why he hopes someday to go back to his home church in a small Missouri town and tell the congregation he thinks they’ve been deceived.
Not that he necessarily believes he will be getting out of prison.
This is his 19th year of a life sentence he received as part of a plea bargain that that involved a drug conspiracy.
Eads said he’s OK if never let out from behind bars.
“If God sees fit, I’ll get out of prison,” he said. “But if I don’t, that’s OK with me.
“When I got this life sentence, I got the best thing that ever happened to me. I’d never have found Jesus otherwise, and Christ is the biggest thing that’s happened in my life.”
Right now, he’s doing his best “to set an example for the men here, to school them so they’re not deceived.” Of the men at Leavenworth, about 600 are professed Christians, but he wants to make sure they’re actually following what the good book says.
As for Johnson, who first went to prison at 18 for burglary, he has two years left, and then he plans to go to Midwest to finish a seminary degree and become a preacher.
In one of those curious twists of fate, he is the son of a Baptist minister, but he described himself as a rebellious young man who wanted nothing to do with his father’s religion or way of life.
Now, he concedes, “I’m turning into my father,” but it’s a change he’s happy about. He “gives permission” for anyone to check him out in five years, because he’s sure he’ll feel just as strongly about his faith commitment then.
Like Eads, he was baptized at age 12, and as he put it, “I met Christ on the street.” He had the chance, when he was on the street, to go to Wheaton Bible College in Illinois, through the Chuck Colson ministry. But, at the time he had a good job at Wonder Bread, making $16 an hour.
He decided he didn’t need Bible college.
There was a lesson in that, as he sees it now.
“When God calls you, you better do it His way,” or He’ll get you to do it anyway, and it’ll probably be harder, as it was for him, Johnson said, smiling.
He remembers the first time he was in prison – three years that time – his father came to visit it him only once. He told him, “I stand for righteousness and I won’t support you when you’re doing this.” T
hough he was bitter at the time, Johnson probably understands his father, who died in 1996, better today.
As for his mother, she’s delighted with his transformation. And that’s how Johnson describes it, a transformation, and he can understand why those who only knew the “old me” might have trouble reconciling who he is now.
Although he knows he’s around corruption, around people who “blame God and curse God,” Johnson believes “God’s love is more powerful, powerful enough to transform you.”
Yet both men know “Christians live in glass houses,” and they are under a lot of scrutiny.
As Johnson puts it, “Me and Ernie may be the only Bible (the other prisoners) may read,” but if something happens in their lives, like a death or some catastrophe, “they sometimes come to God’s people for prayers.”
So Johnson knows, “it’s not what you say, but what you do” that’s important.
“Christian is an action word," he said, echoing one of his many life lessons.