NOTE: This was written as a project for a biography class in school. It was a privilege to spend this kind of time with Bro. Sleeva, and I'm incredibly thankful that he made himself available to me.
At first glance, Jim Sleeva is rather unassuming. He’s fifty-five, with thinning brown hair and a relaxed demeanor. While he’s dressed in a sharp grey suit, clean white shirt and a handsome tie, he strikes me as one far more comfortable in something far more casual. But upon further examination, it is easy to see that with Sleeva, there is more than meets the eye.
Sleeva has one of the busiest, most random schedules of anyone I know. When we met, Sleeva had just come from the Marion County jail, where he regularly teaches, preaches, and mentors the prisoners. Prior to the jail service, Sleeva had been at Indiana Bible College (IBC), teaching a class on foreign missions. As well as a staff instructor at IBC, Sleeva is the dorm supervisor and counselor. Since the inception of IBC twenty years ago, Sleeva has been involved in the development and growth of the school. Sleeva has also been a catalyst for Calvary Tabernacle’s Jesus House program, an inner-city outreach that takes Jesus and the church to the neighborhoods, offering tutoring and mentoring programs in addition to non-traditional, “out of the box” approaches to evangelism. Sleeva also serves on the board of Calvary Tabernacle and as a mentor to the Calvary Youth and Young Adult groups.
Sleeva’s history is as eclectic as his current interests: at age 16, he volunteered at the Pleasant Run Children’s Home, and at the age of 20, embarked on a trip to Germany that resulted in a mission’s effort that lasted 15 years, rather than the intended 3 month survey. Each time I hear him speak, he has a story or an illustration, recounting an experience that is deep in value and full of wisdom, applicable to situations far beyond my own.
As a young person growing up around Sleeva, I remember his work with and efforts to connect with a group of young people dubbed as “unlikelies.” Says Sleeva, “I like the challenge of trying to connect to people who are not like me.” He is the primary force behind the jail ministry, and is working to create programs to enable reentry, offering a sort of halfway house for convicts to come in, learn job skills, coping skills, and create a familial environment to foster a spirit of encouragement and success. “People from [a gang or criminal background] come from a broken family system. We [the church] need to create a new corrected family so they can have healing,” Sleeva explains.
Sleeva’s nontraditional ministries are coupled with a nontraditional approach. He is well versed in traditional “church speak,” and can clearly explain and teach doctrine when necessary, but he much prefers language like “this way cool thing that Jesus did” or “a huge green light in my spiritual vibes.” For some fifty-somethings, this kind of language feels forced, but with Sleeva, it fits. You really understand this is just who he is.
Sleeva’s ministry is to the fringe, and with this group, measuring success can be difficult. Success, for Sleeva, is “seeing them [the Unlikelies] respond to you. To connect to someone who doesn’t expect you to be interested.” He does it, he says, because “it felt like the right thing to do, whether they respond the way you would like them to or not.” You can’t measure success just in terms of numbers and immediate responses. Sometimes it takes years for someone to finally respond.
One example is a close friend of mine, Juan Lopez. Originally, Sleeva had been doing Bible studies with Juan’s brother, and Juan had always responded with hostility towards Sleeva. When Juan’s car broke down, Sleeva spent hours with Juan, working for free on his car, building a relationship of trust and respect. Juan was arrested, and was suddenly receptive to what Sleeva had to offer. While Juan was in prison, Sleeva orchestrated a work scholarship for Juan at IBC. Now, Juan is married, a leading salesman with his company, and an active minister at Calvary.
As a teenager in the youth group, I remember sitting around, hearing wild tales about Jim Sleeva and his exploits. While many of the myths have been dispelled, the mystery of Sleeva will never fade. He’s a strange missionary, doing far more than is expected, and accomplishing far more than anyone could ever know.