Darryl Burton sits a few feet from his desk, where an open laptop waits.
He’s got a research paper to write. At least 10 pages on the doctrine of Scripture and what the words in the Bible mean to him. After that, he has two more graduate papers and some reading to wrap up for seminary at Saint Paul School of Theology.
Pretty heavy stuff for a man who never finished high school. And who not long ago was a skeptic, full of questions about God and the religion his late grandmother clung to so closely. Burton had stopped going to church as a young teen, unable to relate or see how God was working in his life – living in urban St. Louis, where he and his eight siblings, mother and grandmother were stifled by poverty.
His grandmother’s words warned: “One of these days, boy, you’re going to need Jesus. I only hope you remember to call on him.”
Today, with the booming voice of a seasoned preacher, Burton tells his story across the country and abroad to prisoners and churchgoers, students and civic groups. And he recalls how his grandmother’s words echoed in his mind during the late 1990s as he faced life behind bars as Inmate 153063 inside the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Eventually, he says, those words, along with a newfound faith and a team of people who believed in him, led him “from the pit to the pulpit.”
“I just kept hearing, ‘One of these days, boy…,’ ” Burton says, sitting inside his office on the campus of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. “I just couldn’t get that out of my mind. So I said, ‘OK, let’s learn about this Jesus.’ ”
Part of Burton’s story has been talked about across the country for years, flashed in headlines and television newscasts. He served 24 years behind bars for the murder of a St. Louis man before a judge ruled that his 1985 trial was constitutionally flawed and overturned that conviction. It was based on the testimony of two men, one who kept changing his story and another who had more felony convictions than the jury was told.
Since his 2008 release, which lawyers and supporters fought eight years for, Burton has been asked to speak in venues from big halls to biker bars. Many have marveled at his ability to move beyond the nightmare of spending nearly all of his adult life in a prison cell for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
As Burton sees it: “If I hadn’t forgiven them, I would still be in prison. A spiritual prison.”
This month, he completes seminary. And in January he’ll start full time at the Leawood megachurch as an associate pastor in congregational care. He’ll continue some of the work he has done as a Church of the Resurrection intern and pastoral associate, helping families in need and working with a men’s group, showing people what true forgiveness looks like.
“There’s no one who represents himself more humbly than Darryl,” said Karen Lampe, the church’s executive pastor of congregational care. “He just wants to do the very best he can. I think he’s trying to make up for lost time.
“He is one amazing gift for us.”
A gift the church wouldn’t have received if not for the letters Burton wrote and some of the answers he received. He estimates that he wrote more than 700 letters during his time behind bars, reaching out to legislators and attorneys, Oprah Winfrey and groups dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted inmates.
He penned an especially memorable one in 1998, before his religious skepticism turned to conviction.
“Dear Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
“If you’re real and you know all things, you and I know I’m innocent. If you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you, but I will tell the world about you.”
“Sincerely yours, Darryl Burton.”
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SOURCE: The Kansas City Star