John Troyer would often sit in the front row of church dressed in tattered clothes, appearing to be homeless. Sometimes, ushers asked him to leave.
“He would say, ‘But I’m the speaker,’ ” his wife, Karen, recalled.
Troyer would then tell the congregation his story of redemption from prison, slowly taking off the old clothes to show clean ones underneath them to demonstrate it was possible to shed an old life.
“He asked people to look at persons coming out of prisons with different eyes,” his wife said. “Their debt has been paid.”
Troyer died Sept. 9 after rolling his motorcycle in northern Minnesota. He was 61.
The son of a murdered father, Troyer was sexually abused and turned to crime early in life. He grew up in juvenile detention, then later adult jails for burglaries and robberies. In the late 1970s, he was sent to Stillwater prison, and became known as the guy other inmates feared. When an inmate owed another money, the big and intimidating Troyer was often sent to collect.
That changed when he decided one weekend in 1981 to go to a three-day ministry retreat at the prison chapel.
“Something that weekend touched his heart and he was transformed,” said longtime friend Cliff Johnson.
He was determined to turn his life around when he got out of Stillwater, but got thrown a curve when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was able to overcome it, but with his poor health and criminal record, getting a job or renting an apartment was nearly impossible.
Homeless, he spent time at railroad tracks, where he started preaching to hobos. With his background, Karen Troyer said, he formed an easy connection with the men. They gave him the nickname “the rubber tramp” when he began living in a van, where he made sandwiches for the homeless. He earned another nickname, “Hitchhike,” as he traveled the country and ministered.
Troyer and his wife decided to join a group of prison ministers, where they would visit inmates across the state, often at least once a month. Troyer’s history, Karen said, bought him credibility with the prisoners and made it easier to form bonds. During one visit to the Shakopee women’s prison, a pregnant inmate asked them to adopt her child. They did.
In 1987 they started Make Old Things New to provide housing for low-income populations, with a focus on former inmates. Since then, Karen estimates they’ve given a home to at least 600 men and women, helping many to reintegrate back into society.
One of those was Terry Haigler, who first met Troyer 29 years ago when Haigler was one year into a 17-year stint in Sandstone prison for selling cocaine. Haigler said he knew it killed people, that he watched as the light in the addicts’ eyes died out each time they came back for more. Haigler said he wanted to change his life.
Then Troyer gave a ministry retreat at Sandstone. One of his messages stuck with Haigler. “Even though you’ve made many mistakes,” Haigler said, “God’s not done with you.”
That motivated Haigler to get involved in the prison ministry and become friends with Troyer. When Haigler got out of Sandstone, Troyer immediately gave him an apartment. He lived there for two years before he got married and bought a home of his own. Twelve years ago when Haigler broke his neck, Troyer gave him a job as a house manager, which he’s been ever since.
Haigler said he’s asked himself what he’ll do now without his friend and mentor.
“I’ll continue to honor John,” he said. “I’ll continue to do the things John taught me to do when it comes to dealing with other people, to treat them with the same kind of love and respect that John treated me with.”
Troyer is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and four siblings. Services have been held.