From prison to pulpit
A passion for Jesus replaces cocaine trafficking in Eric Earhart’s life
By John W. Kennedy
On the street, the gregarious Eric Earhart is constantly on a mission. Every passerby he sees is an opportunity for evangelism. Within a few seconds of meeting a stranger, Earhart joyously explains in a booming voice what a blessed life he leads, recounting how his faith in Jesus Christ helped him through a 42-month prison stretch.
A decade ago, a different force drove the muscular, 6-foot-5 Earhart in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Much like today, whenever anyone saw him coming they knew he meant business — but not the Lord’s business.
As a cocaine trafficker, Earhart had little patience for those who owed him money.
On Christmas night in 1995, Earhart went to the house of a man who owed him several thousand dollars from a drug deal. Three weeks earlier he had beaten the guy with a baseball bat and warned him to pay — or face a deadly assault the next time. In the brutal drug business, a dealer who doesn’t collect his debts by enforcing such threats soon is out of business. Earhart didn’t plan to miss a payday the second time.
Slightly intoxicated, Earhart kicked in the front door. Within a couple of seconds he had the barrel of an assault rifle pointing into the mouth of the stunned drug defaulter as he sat on his living room couch.
Earhart pulled the trigger.
The gun misfired, ejecting the round of ammunition, which Earhart caught in midair.
Earhart flung the bullet into the lap of his intended, terrified victim.
“You’re lucky tonight!” a fuming Earhart shouted, stabbing the frightened man in the neck with the gun’s bayonet. “But you better get out of town!”
For Earhart, years of alcohol and marijuana abuse began at age 12. So did vandalism and thievery. Adulthood didn’t change him. In a rural culture where men often are judged by how tough they are with their fists, Earhart’s bruising reputation increased.
“I was as deep in sin as a human being could be,” Earhart recalls.
The U.S. Army even booted Earhart — twice — for his inebriated, violent behavior.
After being discharged, Earhart and his brother, Robert, began a wholesale seafood business to regional restaurants. Although lucrative at first, the enterprise began to fail. Earhart didn’t want his family and friends to see that he had failed yet again, so he began trafficking cocaine from North Carolina to New York in an effort to keep up the facade.
Soon the drug trade grew lucrative, so much so that it attracted the attention of state drug enforcement officials. After a six-month investigation, Earhart got busted and faced 40 years behind bars.
Meanwhile, the mother of Earhart’s live-in girlfriend plus the captain of the shrimp boat where he found work while out on bail both evangelized him. One night on the beach Earhart fell on his knees.
“Lord, I’ve ruined my life,” he cried out. “If You can do something good with it, I’m Yours.”
Immediately Earhart changed his lifestyle. He read the Bible six hours a day as he waited to enter prison. As Earhart began serving a seven-year term for cocaine trafficking, his parents and siblings — who didn’t cut him off during his drug dealing days — no longer wanted to see him. His incessant talk about Jesus proved to be too much. They also told him not to write. They didn’t want to read letters rambling on about the Savior of the world.
In the first cellblock where he lived — the first of eight prison camps — Earhart stood out as the only Christian. Although committing his life to Jesus didn’t abolish his sentence, it gave him peace to endure the circumstances.
“Prison is a dark, evil place,” Earhart says. “But to know the Lord makes all the difference in the world.” His newfound faith also enabled him to cope with his past mistakes.
“Prison allowed me to be humbled and real with myself,” Earhart says. “It wasn’t the fault of my mama, my daddy, my lawyer, the district attorney or my girlfriend that I was in there. I was there because of my sin and my poor decisions.”
Early during his incarceration, Earhart was filled with the Holy Spirit at a Bible study. Bold evangelism has been a hallmark of his life ever since.
“I was always amazed at how Christian literature discipled me in the prison system,” says Earhart, 37. “Whenever I needed to go to the next level, God had always provided free materials and Bibles through the generosity of His people.”
Earhart believes it’s important for inmates to have access to magazines such as Today’s Pentecostal Evangel because prisoners also are inundated with theologically suspect material. “It’s so important in the discipleship process of inmates, especially for those weak in the faith, to be doctrinally sound,” he says. “It’s easy to end up with wrong teaching.”
Shortly before his release, Earhart had the opportunity to be out in the community a few hours every week. He chose Sunday mornings, when he visited The Carpenter’s Shop church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Ahoskie, N.C. For four months no one in the congregation knew he lived in prison. Then after services one Sunday he asked Pastor Wallace Phillips to visit him at his residence — the regional penitentiary.
During their visit, Phillips immediately sensed from God that Earhart had a ministry calling upon his life.
Even though the Lord had cleaned him up, Earhart balked at the notion.
I’m not pastor material, Earhart told himself. I’m a fighter, a redneck fisherman. Earhart had a concept of preachers as meek, horn-rimmed men in black suits, even though the husky Phillips showed up at prison wearing jeans and a casual shirt.
When Phillips offered to mentor him, Earhart initially turned him down. When released, he simply wanted to go home and hang out at the beach. On reflection, he yielded to full-time ministry.
Not that Earhart had held back in prison. There he led 380 inmates and five guards to make salvation decisions.
In fact, revival broke out at the prison camp immediately after Phillips told Earhart about God’s calling. Inmates started coming up to Earhart asking what they needed to do to get right with the Lord.
Prison officials viewed Earhart as the ringleader of this Christian “gang.” The camp supervisor called Earhart into his office and ordered him to stop preaching, unless he wanted to be convicted of inciting a riot and disrupting the function of a correctional facility — charges that would result in an additional eight years to his sentence. At the time, Earhart had only 60 days until freedom.
Just as Peter and John refused the Sanhedrin’s orders to stop speaking the name of Jesus (Acts 4), Earhart responded that he couldn’t stop preaching. In a response worthy of the apostles, Earhart told the warden that as long as he had breath, he would continue declaring the gospel. And he did. The warden backed off his threats, just as the Sanhedrin did.
“Christians face violent persecution in prison, from other prisoners and from staff as well,” Earhart says. “Christians bring a message of conviction to those not walking with the Lord.”
In December 2000, after serving half of his seven-year term, Earhart walked out a free man. The next year he attended an Assemblies of God boot camp for church planters, but he still craved assurance from North Carolina District Superintendent Charles O. Kelly.
“I wanted to make sure he knew what a lying, cheating past I had,” Earhart says. Kelly told Earhart if God wanted him in ministry he needed to heed the call.
Paul Drost, director of Church Planting for the Assemblies of God, sees a similarity in Earhart and the apostle Peter, a rough-and-tumble fisherman who didn’t change his take-charge personality after conversion.
“Eric is as radical a convert as anyone I know,” Drost says. “He has a tender heart toward God and is willing to preach where others aren’t.”
After being trained in evangelism and discipleship, Earhart in October 2002 became pastor of the first church planting endeavor of Carpenter’s Shop: Upper Room Assembly, located 26 miles north of Ahoskie in Gatesville. He started with half a dozen people.
“Eric is the kind of guy who lives by strong convictions,” says Carpenter’s Shop’s Pastor Phillips. “His personality is exactly what the county needed for a strong, vibrant Pentecostal work.”
Now, Upper Room, which meets in a newly renovated former auto parts store, has 100 attendees — in a town of 280. Earhart knew a few of his flock while in prison, including James Gresham.
“I could hear him in Bible study about 10 bunks away,” Gresham recalls. “He prayed for me one day and immediately I was cured of my 20-year bondage to alcohol.”
Only one Upper Room family has any kind of Pentecostal background. Around one-third are African American.
It’s not that Gates County, which has a population of only 10,500, had no congregations before. Although the county has but a single traffic light, there are 62 houses of worship, most of which have worshippers belonging to either one ethnic makeup or the other. The county is 59 percent white and 39 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Signs of racial division are still very evident.
In such an environment, Earhart preaches that turning from evil is a requirement of salvation. “John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul all taught to repent and reject darkness first,” Earhart says.
“He is well suited to pioneer a church there because of his passion and his ability to identify with people,” says District Superintendent Kelly.
For Earhart, sin, not skin color, is the black and white issue.
“He’s not one to pussyfoot around,” says Mickey White, a ministry volunteer who met Earhart when he lived in prison. “He’s a real repent-and-turn-from-sin-or-you’re-going-to-hell kind of guy.”
Chuck Small, a paint store manager who doubles as Upper Room’s associate pastor, agrees. “In Christian circles I’ve met so many people who say one thing and do another,” Small says. “But Eric is refreshing. He’s lived what he preaches.”
Upper Room is located less than a mile from where Earhart spent his final months as an inmate. Ironically, state prison officials have started calling him to ask if prisoners being released can spend transition time in his care. So far, three men have stayed with him.
Eventually, Earhart’s family stopped avoiding him, too. Earhart led his father to salvation a year before he died of cancer at age 63 in 2002. Two years ago, Earhart’s brother, Robert, who had a drug abuse history similar to Eric’s, also converted. Robert now is a scallop boat captain.
For Earhart the future is even brighter. On July 1 he will wed Olathe, Kan., kindergarten teacher Shari R. Albertson. And yes, she knows about his past.
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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