RANTOUL — Peter Schneider, director of Jesus is the Way Prison Ministries, remembers the first time he set foot in a prison.
The place was the state prison in Danville. The year was 1994.
"It was stark," he said. "It was very intimidating. The people who were running it seemed pretty aggressive as far as not cutting you any slack."
The closing of the electronic doors behind him gave Schneider an indescribable feeling.
People who go in to minister in state prisons are told up front that the Illinois Department of Corrections does not negotiate for the lives of hostages.
It's enough to give a minister pause, but Schneider walked in.
"I believed I was being sent by God," he said.
That first visit was successful.
"I can talk to anybody about Jesus, and I'm pretty intense about it," Schneider said. "I really met some stunning people in there, their personal character."
He has met many "talented musicians, writers, artists (and entrepreneurs)."
People have to be really committed to follow Christ in prison, he said.
He said on his first visit to the state prison in Vandalia, about 50 people came forward to accept Christ.
Schneider doesn't do it alone. Jesus Is the Way, which operates with an annual budget of $300,000, has a paid staff of four. The rest who help are volunteers, one of whom drives from Decatur on a regular basis.
Dick Brandt of Mahomet drives Schneider on many of his prison visits.
Brandt came forward and said, "'God told me that you need a driver,'" Schneider recalls.
Mike Rawlings, a former Louisville police officer, serves as Jesus Is the Way's operations director and runs The Truth Circle — a time when participants are required to be completely honest with one another.
Schneider couldn't do all that he does without plenty of support at home.
"My wife (Stephanie) is very tolerant," he said. "I'm gone a lot."
She travels with him on many prison visits but stays in the car while he enters the prisons.
That support extends to his seven children and 12 grandchildren. On a recent day, two of his grandchildren showed up to help.
Schneider's days usually run about 12 hours. His car goes through tires like most people go through light bulbs.
Monetary giving to the ministry is "ebb and flow," Schneider said. "In the economy we're in, we have wonderful people who support this work."
There is no doubt Schneider feels as if he's where he belongs:
"For the first time in my life I feel like I'm doing what I was born to do."