One of the first things to be noticed about John Ewell is his ink. A small, plain cross adorns his left cheekbone, just under his eye, and his arms and hands are covered in an array of art as well.
At first glance the colors run together, but a question about a tattoo on his right hand – a heart, anchor and a cross — reveals that much of his art, done by his brother, tells Ewell’s story. That particular tattoo, he explained, represents faith, hope and charity. Then there’s “hold fast” and “disciple” spelled out across his fingers, the latter word formed when he folds his hands in prayer. On the right side of his neck is a piece that reads “prodigal son,” a label he said is more than fitting for him. That tattoo is juxtaposed with one on the left side of his neck that is the logo for his passion, Anchor Ministry.
Ewell lives in Maple Valley and attends Hope Fellowship Church. He formed the nonprofit Anchor Ministry as an outreach to inmates four years ago.
He’s the first to admit that he never expected to work for a ministry, let alone run one.
“Guys who do ministry have big degrees and speak well, and certainly don’t look like me,” Ewell said.
He grew up hopscotching around Los Angeles and his dad worked for the LA County Sheriff’s Office.
Ewell has a passion for reaching inmates, a good portion of which comes from the fact that he used comes from the fact that he used to be one.
“I was in and out of trouble as a kid,” Ewell explained, the last time he was in prison being 16 years ago.
“Some guys shared Jesus with me and loved on me the last time I was incarcerated and I made a deal with God that if I got the chance I’d do something like that,” he said of how his life got turned around.
Today he is married with four kids and their family has called Maple Valley home for the last eight years. Prior to starting Anchor, Ewell owned his own construction business and built custom cars, but an elbow injury that required surgery put an end to his days of hard work on cars. That injury six years ago ended up being the push Ewell needed to pursue ministry work.
It turned out a neighbor had connections to a prison ministry and Ewell ended up working for them for two years before deciding to strike out on his own.
To prepare for working with inmates he took classes offered through the other ministry he worked for and also attended Seattle Central Community College, getting a degree in chemical dependency counseling.
Upon founding Anchor, Ewell began raising all of his support and he volunteers at various jails, one of the main ones being the Kent Regional Justice Center.
“Convincing people that inmates are valuable is not an easy task,” Ewell said. “You can’t clean a fish until you catch it.”
Society, he said, views inmates as getting what they deserve, and often don’t want to reach out to them.
“I think it’s important to love on people you don’t understand,” Ewell said.
A normal day for Ewell includes getting his kids off to school, then visiting inmates. He explained that the inmates can put in requests to see him, and that’s how he knows where to head on any given day.
Ewell said that it is important to him to look at the whole picture when he meets an inmate. He gets to know them and works at gaining their respect, disciples them, and helps them get connected to housing and jobs so that they may be successful after they get out.
“There’s a lot of people who get out and change their lives,” Ewell said.
He explained that often former inmates will try to slip quietly back into society because of the stigma attached to being incarcerated, and as a result people often don’t realize how many former inmates do change and turn their lives around.
“Yes, people change,” Ewell said. “Everybody has their different rock bottoms.”
Ewell said that his mission is two fold: helping inmates accept responsibility for their actions, and see that they have value.
“I really try to help these guys see what they did and (that) there are earthly consequences,” Ewell said. “You’ve got to hold these guys gently but firmly.”
Ewell also believes that none of the inmates are beyond saving.
“One of my favorite things about Jesus is he would forgive people quickly but the very next thing he would say is ‘knock it off,’” Ewell said.
It’s a long process working with inmates, he added. But the work pays off, and when it does the difference is incredible.
“When these guys change, they’re done going to prison,” Ewell explained.
He says it isn’t about himself, but he is an example of what he preaches nonetheless.
“There’s nothing special about me,” Ewell said. “I just said that I would do it.”