From addiction, prison to the ‘honor’ of fatherhood

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (BP) – When he left prison in 2009, John Stroup knew nothing about being a godly father.

Stroup’s father died when he was only a toddler. He was raised by his mother, and many of the men in his life spent time behind bars. Living in poverty and desperate to keep a roof over their heads, Stroup began to sell drugs and give the money to his mother so they could pay bills and buy food.

“My version of dad was the guy who taught me how to shoot dope, to put a needle in my arm,” Stroup says.

After his mother and best friend died, he says, he “went crazy.” Having lost his home, he abandoned himself to drug abuse. He was convicted as a crack dealer and ultimately ended up in prison.

Then, finding a Bible in prison in 2008, Stroup discovered that God loves even the “bad guys” in society. In fact, he realized that, throughout the pages of Scripture, God often used “bad guys” like himself. So, through faith in Christ, he found forgiveness and a heavenly Father.

Today, Stroup serves as executive director of Freeway Ministries. Founded out of Crossway Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., Freeway has helped local churches in Missouri, Nebraska and even in Cape Town, South Africa, reach drug addicts, ex-convicts and the homeless.

And, through this ministry, Stroup has seen fathers transformed by the gospel of Christ. “When you reach a man, you reach a family,” he says. “I’ve seen men get saved, changed and fill whole pews up in churches.”

But, often, these fathers – saved, like Stroup, out of drug addiction and prison sentences – don’t know how to be godly fathers. They didn’t have godly fathers themselves, and churches need to show them what godly fatherhood looks like, Stroup says. They need to walk alongside these families, acting as fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers for them.

Stroup knows this truth well, since he discovered while in prison that he was himself the unmarried father to an infant son. And, when he got out of prison, he was a new believer with no idea how to be a father.

Pastor Eddie Bumpers of Crossway Baptist, Springfield, marvels at the “miracle” that Stroup chose to be a father at all.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Bumpers said. “But because of God’s change in his life, he realized his responsibility: ‘This is my son, and I have to raise him.’”

After leaving prison and finding a job, Stroup took his first, small step in fatherhood by sending child support to his son’s mother. Then, when the baby’s mother asked him to help pay for a house so she and their son could get out of the motel where they were living, Stroup agreed to pay the whole cost of the house.

Then, within the year, Stroup heard from his parole officer that his son had been rescued from a meth lab. Against all odds, since he was a convicted felon, Stroup asked the court for sole custody of his son.

By 2010, he was a single father, raising a toddler who could say only “No” and “mommy.”

“I was scared,” Stroup says. “I thought I was going to fail.” But, according to Bumpers, Stroup learned quickly by watching other parents in the church. Above all, he was “consistent, humble, teachable.”

“Because he didn’t have a father,” Bumpers says, “he had a greater desire to be a good father, like God’s been to him. But he had to work at it.”

His lessons in fatherhood only intensified when, two years later, he married his wife Sharla. Only six months after leaving behind drug addiction to follow Christ, Sharla became a preacher’s wife – and she brought two teenagers of her own to the new family. Earlier this year, Sharla’s younger son – who now works on staff at Crossway Baptist Church – announced during his wedding ceremony that he and his bride were taking on Stroup’s last name.

In 2020, a young woman who was seven months pregnant with a drug dealer’s baby walked into a service at Freeway Ministries. She didn’t want the baby but had struggled to find a good family to adopt her child. That night, she came to faith in Christ, and in days to come she asked the Stroups to adopt her daughter.

The adoption went through successfully – though a lawyer warned Stroup that he hadn’t seen a felon privately adopt a child in more than a dozen years of his law practice. Then, less than a year after the adoption, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson decided to pardon Stroup of his crimes.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Stroup said, “but to be a father and to have somebody call you father is an honor.”

Because of God’s grace, he added, his children have never had to visit him in jail or see him high on drugs or drunk on alcohol. They’ve never had to listen to him spouting off curse words. “I’ve been able to break that curse, and the generational chains have fallen off my family.”

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