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
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
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
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
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).
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