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The Bible behind bars

Memorized Scripture bears fruit

By John W. Kennedy in Hot Springs and Malvern, Ark.

For more than a decade, Assemblies of God Chaplain Bob Holyfield of Little Rock, Ark., has been introducing faith-based discipleship programs into prisons around the country. The easygoing Holyfield, who is equally respected by wardens and inmates, has conducted intensive weeklong Basic Life Principles courses in 23 states. The character-building program then runs another six months to a year in the prisons, focusing on topics such as authority, responsibility, finances and Scripture memorization.

Perhaps no inmate has applied the course to daily life more than William Pearson, who heard Holyfield conduct a seminar at Cummins Unit in Grady, Ark. Pearson asked the chaplain if Joshua 1:8 (“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” NIV) could really be trusted. Holyfield assured him of God’s promise, and Pearson took it to heart.

Pearson didn’t hear about the Bible growing up. He began smoking marijuana at age 9. Within a couple of years he had graduated to LSD, cocaine and methamphetamines. In adulthood he discovered crack cocaine and hashish. He never had a problem with supply because he also dealt drugs. A decade ago, Pearson attempted to begin manufacturing meth in an effort to eliminate the middleman. Police interrupted the cooking of his first batch.

Pearson’s conviction for manufacturing meth and possession with intent to distribute could have brought a life sentence. Instead he ended up serving 4½ years.

While incarcerated, Pearson responded to an evangelist’s salvation invitation. Soon Holyfield, 58, came along as a mentor to Pearson, whose own father took off soon after his birth. Pearson, 41, quickly earned the nickname of “the walking Bible” around prison because of the number of Scriptures he committed to memory.

Pearson began memorizing verses initially. Then he committed chapters of Romans and John to heart. Today he can recite the entire books of Ephesians, James and Hebrews. Every day he spends at least two hours in memorization, reviewing verses written out on cards.

When he began meditating on what he had learned, his lifestyle radically changed. He no longer craved cigarettes, sexual conquests or profanity. Although he has multiple heavy-metal tattoos on his arms, those messages no longer rule his soul. These days Scripture is Pearson’s obsession.

Holyfield also is pastor of Family Worship Center in Hattieville, which initially purchased Berean School of the Bible courses for Pearson to study.

“William is in the Word more than anyone I know,” Holyfield says.

Holyfield told Tim Culbreth, executive director of the Teen Challenge Center in Hot Springs, about Pearson living faithfully for the Lord in prison. Culbreth and Pearson clicked immediately.

“I could tell he had a call on his life,” says Culbreth, who hired Pearson as a senior staff member. “He’s been a huge blessing as I’ve watched his ministry develop.”

At the Teen Challenge 50-bed male induction center, Pearson manages a caseload of students, tending to their daily needs plus communicating with families and probation officers of those who have been in trouble with the law. Holyfield and Culbreth have been discipling Pearson since his June 2003 release.

FINDING A HELPMATE

Pearson and his wife, Debbie, have been married four years, but it couldn’t be called love at first sight. Debbie worked for AT&T when William visited her office to see about getting his voice mail activated.

“He walked in, and I wondered why anybody would want all those tattoos,” Debbie says. “I had never dated anybody with tattoos. I wasn’t attracted to him.”

Still, Debbie says she sensed that William was a man after God’s own heart. William called her the next day and began talking about Scripture. Soon he invited Debbie to church.

A friendship developed.

“I had been going to church since childhood, and I had never met a man so consumed with the Word of God,” says Debbie, who now helps her husband in his memorization. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on. He never misses beginning the day with the Lord.”

INVESTING IN MEN

For the past 2½ years, Pearson has volunteered for prison ministry in Malvern, 20 miles east of Hot Springs. Two evenings a week, around 30 inmates gather in a classroom at Ouachita River Unit to learn from a program Pearson and Culbreth devised based in part on Berean School of the Bible materials. Pearson leads an eight-month course of what is in essence a Teen Challenge Center inside the prison. Light for the Lost pays for the
materials.

Pearson volunteers because he has a passion for men to stay out of prison once they get out. He is investing himself in those who are teachable and have a desire for spiritual growth. Pearson is allowed to minister at the medium-security institution unsupervised because of his good prison record and references.

“God told me to take biblical principles to men who have life-controlling problems so they can gain tools to be drug-free,” Pearson says. “But it’s not enough to just get off the drugs. They need to gain the ability to be active members in the kingdom of God and productive members of society.”

A recent evening class dealt with “spiritual power in supernatural prayer.” Pearson is transparent, animated and to the point.

“If you call yourself a man of God, there’s no excuse for living in sin,” he tells the assembled group, pacing between the tables where inmates sit with their workbooks. A natural preacher, he holds the rapt attention of his students with enthusiastic and sometimes touching instruction.

“It doesn’t matter if you are out of prison or in prison, God is your provider,” Pearson declares. “God called me forth from the tomb of addiction and put me in a pulpit.”

As he dialogues with the men he evokes repeated “amens” and even occasional applause.

At various points during the evening inmates stand to testify, with many nearly preaching themselves. Students sense Pearson’s genuine love of the Lord.

“This class takes you deep into the Word of God,” says 50-year-old Joe Brawley, who has been in the penitentiary for 11 years and is serving a life sentence. “When I gave my life to the Lord, I chose to be obedient to prison authorities and spiritual authorities. Will sincerely wants to see men who are addicted set free.”

The program requires men to do homework and to set goals, even if their release date isn’t until 2032, which it is for Gene McCool.

“When I was in the world I had no biblical understanding whatsoever,” says McCool, 35. “Will is a phenomenal mentor who offers hope. He has helped turn my bitterness into compassion.”

In addition to teaching two nights a week, Pearson preaches every week at either the Hot Springs Teen Challenge center or at area churches. Holyfield has him preach at Family Worship Center at least quarterly.

“I love Bob Holyfield,” Pearson says. “He has been instrumental in getting me to preach and encouraging me in my schooling.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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