“Prison to the pulpit’"
Third Prize - $4,000
Jimmy Tomlin is a feature writer and columnist for The High Point Enterprise in High Point, N.C. A 1985 graduate of the University of North Carolina with a bachelor's degree in journalism, he has been a professional journalist in North Carolina for more than 30 years. He has authored or contributed to several books, published hundreds of freelance magazine articles, and won numerous state and national writing awards, including four O. Henry Awards for Outstanding Writing in North Carolina. This is also his fourth Amy Writing Award, having previously won first place (2003), second place (2005) and third place (1998).
Like most pastors, the Rev. Tyrone Rigsby can quote a lot of Scripture by heart.
It’s an inherent part of the job description: Know the Bible. Study it. Share it with others. Help them apply it to their lives.
But ask the 52-year-old High Point preacher to name a verse that applies to his own life — a self-admitted roller-coaster ride of rebellion, redemption and righteousness — and Rigsby doesn’t even have to think about it. It’s 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says, “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
The verse reminds Rigsby of his former life — two failed marriages, alcohol abuse, addiction to crack, drug deals gone bad, common-law robbery, prison time. And it reminds him of the man he has become since a clerical collar replaced the albatross that had been hanging around his neck for so many years.
“I’m like a new man starting all over again,” says Rigsby, a towering man with an easy smile and a loud voice. “I’m not relying on my past anymore, because I’m pressing forward to be a better man.”
In addition to pastoring at Mount Olivet AME Zion Church in Greensboro for the past decade, he’s been clean and sober for nearly 19 years now. He’s in a happy, stable marriage with a woman he met at church. He’s a doting father and grandfather, and serves as PTA president at his grandson’s school, Montlieu Elementary.
Rigsby has also been a dedicated college student since turning his life around, earning an associate’s degree from Guilford Technical Community College, a bachelor’s degree from N.C. A&T State University, and his master’s of divinity degree from Livingstone College.
As a student, he stuck it out even during the lean times, when he didn’t have transportation.
Even during those endless days when he was juggling two jobs — one as a pastor, the other as a caseworker for Triad Health Project’s High Point office.
And even during those emotionally draining days when his young grandson was battling rhabdosarcoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.
The diligence has paid off, though, in a most remarkable way. This morning, when Hood Theological Seminary holds commencement ceremonies on its campus in Salisbury, the Rev. Tyrone Rigsby — who grew up in the projects, who chased crack cocaine for 14 years, who once had an angry drug dealer threaten to kill him, and who did hard time in a maximum-security prison — will receive his doctorate and become Dr. Tyrone Rigsby.
A new creature, indeed.
Rigsby spent his formative years growing up in the projects of Wilmington, raised by a single mother. It obviously wasn’t a privileged childhood, he says, but it was “pretty normal” under the circumstances. One constant in his life was church.
“I always felt the calling to preach, even when I was a little boy,” he recalls. “I’ve always had that enthusiasm. I used to go around in the projects and say I was preaching — I was 13 or 14. A lot of people said I would wind up being a preacher, but I didn’t pay them no attention — I was too busy being a teenager and having fun. I didn’t want to be a preacher.”
It wasn’t until Rigsby was in his early to mid-20s, when he and his first wife separated, that his life began to unravel.
“I didn’t know how to deal with that (separation), so I started doing other things like drugs and alcohol,” says Rigsby, who was stationed in Havelock with the Marines at the time.
During that difficult period, he says, he went looking for a prostitute one Friday night — and he found one who offered him much more than he’d anticipated.
“I’d never known anything about crack cocaine,” Rigsby says, “but I remember there was a group of us sitting around a table at her house, and I said, ‘What is that?’ She said, ‘You don’t wanna know,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ She told me to try it, and when I tried it, that’s all it took. I was hooked.”
Rigsby wasted a lot of money and a lot of years chasing a high he never caught, all the while dodging death. If the crack itself didn’t kill him, a drug dealer could have — and one very nearly did, threatening to shoot him over an unpaid debt, until a mutual friend stepped in.
On another occasion, Rigsby found himself involved in a common-law robbery, sitting in a cab — the getaway car — while his buddies robbed a hotel guest of about $400. When his second wife turned him in, he in turn ratted on his accomplices to get his sentence reduced. He ended up serving about 3½ years, including a year at Pender Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Burgaw.
“It gave me a whole lot of time to think,” Rigsby says, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “I remember thinking, ‘You know, Tyrone, no one’s responsible for this but you — you’re the one who has to take responsibility.’ I did the things I needed to do for them to release me, and I got out on parole.”
After his release in 1987, he completed more than 800 hours of community service and tried to move on with his life back in Wilmington. The old habits continued to haunt him, though, even after he started going back to church and began pursuing the ministry. Eventually, he told his spiritual mentor the ministry just wasn’t for him.
“I can’t sit in the pulpit knowing I’m still struggling like this,” Rigsby told him through tears. “I want to give up — I don’t want to do this anymore.”
As he turned to leave, his mentor stopped him.
“Tyrone,” he said calmly, “you need to leave Wilmington. You just need to go somewhere and get yourself together.”
That “somewhere” would be High Point.
The year was 1996, and Rigsby had recently learned of a friend enrolled in a program at Caring Services — a relatively new treatment center in High Point that provided a halfway house for substance abusers. He enrolled as soon as a bed became available.
He remembers being especially impressed with the center’s director, Becky Yates.
“She was never a judgmental person,” Rigsby says. “She was a loving person who realized we weren’t people who just woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be an addict.’ I stayed in the halfway house for four months and got clean, and this July I’ll have 19 years of being clean.”
It was in High Point that Rigsby renewed his passion for ministry, and the difficult path he followed to get there gave him a trait he might not have developed otherwise — compassion.
“You never know what a person is going through,” he says. “Anybody can sit back and pass judgment, but I always tell people to be careful about passing judgment on others, because one day that might be your son or daughter that you might have to go rescue.”
Every time he sees someone homeless or getting high, he sees the Tyrone Rigsby of 25 years ago, and it softens his heart.
“You’ve got a lot of people who will pass judgment in a heartbeat,” he says. “But I can’t label anybody or call them names — I don’t have that right, because I don’t know what that person’s going through. But what I can do is help them, instead of talking about them.”
This morning, as Rigsby adds a doctorate to his inspiring life story, he can’t help but think this was all part of God’s plan for him.
“I believe everything in my life has been predestined,” he says. “Everything that I’ve been through, every place that I’ve been has been predestined for me to help someone else out. I really, really believe that. So I don’t look back on my life and say ‘should-a, could-a, would-a’ — what I do today is just be thankful for where I’m at.”
Printed in the High Point Enterprise; May 16, 2015
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