At 87, lay minister takes his Easter message behind bars
At 87, lay minister takes his Easter message behind bars

Netzer doesn't soften preaching

As Jesus hung on the cross, according to the Bible, he promised a thief hanging next to him: "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise."

That promise is one reason Emil Netzer has been ministering to prisoners in the Missoula County jail for 57 years.

He will minister to them again Sunday, offering one of 16 services the prisoners can choose to attend.

"Emil's the hard line," said one Missoula County prisoner who attended Netzer's ministry Saturday. "He tells you why you're here. He doesn't beat around the bush."

"He's not a soft touch," offered another inmate.

Netzer, 87, a lay minister, used to be the only person offering a religious meeting at the jail.

But when the new, and larger, Missoula County Detention Facility opened, more people came to preach.

"He's the most well-known," said Eric Stroh, a detention officer who has been working at the jail for 15 years.

Netzer's Easter message is that if Jesus had not died on the cross, he couldn't have taken man's sins and sorrows and made them his own. Some people will die for friends, he said, but no one will die for sinners as Jesus did.

"It was good for the world. Without Jesus' dying, no one could go to heaven," he explained.

"The word of God is the only thing that will make something out of man when he leaves this jail," Netzer told the prisoners.

One inmate said he attends Netzer's sessions because "it's just a good place to come and talk about Christ. Emil's a good one."

Tony Garcia, a city prison trusty, was raised a Catholic, but "something didn't tick right," he said. He attends the Saturday sessions, and he'll be at Sunday's session just as he has for a couple of years. He does it, he said, to reinforce his faith.

A couple of Saturday's flock had tattoos, but all of them had Bibles and all turned to the various scriptures as Netzer read to them.

If the inmates who come to his sessions don't have Bibles, Netzer provides one.

A retired Northern Pacific Railroad worker, Netzer has shared his ministry duties with Don Stiner for 40 years and newcomer Mike Iten for about a year. While Netzer preaches, Stiner, who chauffeurs Netzer around, looks up specific scriptures. "We work together," Netzer said.

Stiner's wife Juanita and Betty Garnaas help with the female prisoners.

Netzer said he brings Christ into the lives of 280-290 prisoners every year. This year he's aiming for 300 since he's also ministering to state and county prisoners.

"We see results," Stiner said. "I met a guy who was in our services three years ago. He came up to see Emil. He was still going on with the Lord."

Netzer's ministry sessions draw anywhere from eight or nine to sometimes only two or three. Saturday, seven prisoners attended.

"The longer I've preached, the more I like it," he said, conceding that "it is a tough ministry."

Stiner is being groomed to take over when Netzer gives up his services.

"I'm a couple of years younger than Emil so I think I can do it," Stiner said.

Netzer isn't quite ready to quit preaching. "To me," he said, "it's always exciting. I don't know if I'll make 58, but I'll go as long as I can."

Reporter Donna Syvertson can be reached at 523-5267 or at

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