When I was just out of the Navy and becoming more and more bitter as the result of my wife divorcing me after she’d forced me to get out of the Navy, a friend I worked with in the ED at NCMH, Malcolm MacGregor seemed to have something I was missing. This rather scruffy looking guy never got rattled and always demonstrated a calmness of which I sorely lacked. I knew he was a Christian, but didn’t think that had anything to do with it as I thought I was as well (after all, I’d been raised in the Catholic church and was an American, and so, of course, I was a Christian). We had ample opportunities to discuss what his view of Christianity was (reading the Bible because you wanted to?), but no matter how I at times disagreed with him, he was always kind and gentle to me.
He kept inviting me to this gathering of folks called the Chapel Hill Bible Church which was then meeting in a building on campus (Gerrard Hall) each Sunday morning. I put him off for weeks until finally, I decided to go if for no other reason just to shut him up! When I did I was amazed at what I SAW; what I’ve heard referred to by others in the military as a “target rich environment” because of all the beautiful coeds who attended there. I decided to continue going to the services there to see if I could ‘mine’ this rich environment (hey, I was still a sailor at heart, what can I say?). Over time listening to what James Abrahamson taught, something began happening to me that I did not then realize. Once after a service as many were congregating outside Gerrard Hall, I walked up to Jim and told how much I had enjoyed the lesson. He smiled and said, “Well, praise the Lord!” I was taken aback as I expected a very different response as I’d complimented him, not the Lord.
Sadly, shortly after this, I became so ‘busy’ that Sundays were usually the only day I could sleep late, so my attendance with that strange but wonderful group of believers came to an end. A rich seed had been planted by God through the work of Jim, Malcolm and several others that would not bear fruit for many years. I’d begun dating and then living with another woman (also recovering from a divorce), and we both did attend different ‘churches’ at times through the intervening years but never felt we belonged there.
Chaplain Skip Pike taught that Sunday and I remember comparing him to Jim, keeping things all logical and all, and just thought ‘meh’ at the end. A week later (and a day after my 36th birthday) I was again invited to go; using the same reasoning led me to go. This time another Chaplain was teaching, Eugene Wigelsworth, and to this day I cannot recall what he said or even the passage he taught from; all I know is that when he asked if there was anyone who felt a call on their hearts to come forward, I practically leapt from my chair. I was the second in line (I have no idea if anyone was behind me; all I knew was that the ‘now or never’ feeling in my soul impelled me to move and so I had. When the other prisoner had finished and turned away, I somehow felt unable to step toward Pastor Wigelsworth and began to sob out loud. Had he not stepped forward and hugged me to himself, I would have fallen to the floor. Such a feeling of acceptance and love flooded my heart and soul that even now I can not describe it. Again, I have no recollection of time, or what was happening around me, only as my crying began to subside, a JOY beyond description began to fill me. Pastor Eugene stepped back from me, still holding my shoulders and told me, “You will be fine, young man. I want you to come to my office immediately after the service so we can talk.” I stammered a, “ Yes, sir!” and went back to my chair.
In the following months, I came to love this godly man and to look forward to the times when we could sit in his office and just talk about this seedling growing within me. Far too soon, my time at Central Prison drew to an end as I was in a group selected to be moved to a high-security road camp (where we’d have contact visits!). As we walked toward the area where I was searched before boarding the transfer van, Gene continued to encourage me to follow up on course work he’d arranged for me through Lee College (now University). I’d also ‘discovered’ the Bible Broadcasting Network with such teachers as Chuck Swindoll, Vernon Magee, and others I came to know and respect (indeed, from then on whatever place D.O.C. sent me, my priority was to try and locate a local BBN outlet. Through the years the teaching I heard on BBN and my personal study (used up three separate study Bibles while ‘inside’), God did continue to nurture the seedling, but finding a community of like-minded believers was rare within the prison system.
As I approached the conclusion of my time in prison, I was transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough. I had lost contact with several over my years in prison, but once at OCC I reached out to Malcolm (still had his address) and wrote him. He wrote back that he was excited that I was so close and that he would let others know to pray for me. Within a few months, I qualified for Community Visitor passes, but needed some sponsors willing to take me out. I’d already connected with one of the Yokefellow volunteers (Bruce Dalton) and had been out a few times with him when the annual volunteer's banquet was held. The yard was closed to all prisoners, but a guard came to my bunk (where I was reading) and told me that someone wanted to speak to me. I went into the visitation area (where the banquet was being held) and saw Jim and Cecee Abrahamson; Jim standing with his arms wide open and a great big grin on his face. We spoke briefly and he promised to start taking me out on CV passes very soon.
The next Sunday he and Cecee arrived to take me to the Chapel Hill Bible Church (no longer meeting on campus, but in a beautiful building off of Erwin Road). Many of those in the Sunday School class he led knew me from BC (before Christ) and I have to confess to feeling more than a little trepidation at what kind of welcome I’d receive. Very soon it became apparent to me that the doctrine of God’s grace was more than a textbook idea to the people there. The warmth and welcome I felt amazed me after almost 23 years in prison. In the following year and a half, I continued to bathe weekly in Jim’s teaching as my release date drew nearer. Days before that happened I was transferred to Wake Correctional since my wife was then living in Wake County and so my parole officer was also in Wake County. Soon after that, we became regular attendees of the services at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and then members; I won’t claim that I have arrived at being all that He wants me to be, but the atmosphere and teaching there had my roots going ever deeper and my heart filling more and more.
The journey continues…