From Prison to Pulpit
The message Eric J. Earhart has preached since he started Upper Room Assembly in Gatesville, North Carolina, 15 years ago has remained constant.
“The focus of this ministry is deliverance,” says Earhart, 49. “Christ saves, He heals, and He delivers. We stay away from religiosity.”
The former shrimp boat fisherman didn’t feel capable or equipped when only two years after his release from prison he started Upper Room Assembly with half a dozen attendees. And he still doesn’t. But people are responding. Gatesville has only 300 residents, yet 120 regularly show up at the church on Sunday morning.
“I want to see people set free the way I was set free,” says Earhart, who spent 42 months in prison after being convicted of cocaine trafficking. He would have spent life in prison for murder if not for the miraculous intervention of the Lord.
Upper Room is located three miles down the road from where Earhart spent his final months as an inmate. Earhart says that two months before his release he received an epiphany from the Lord that he needed to start a church in Gates County. Earhart hadn’t been in the county before his incarceration.
“I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard,” Earhart recalls. He figured he didn’t have the right personality to be a pastor. At 6-foot-4 and possessing a booming voice and a forceful personality, Earhart sees himself as more of an evangelist, a John the Baptist type who bluntly rebukes sinners.
“I offend people all the time,” Earhart says. “I’m a bull in a china shop.”
Nevertheless, in obedience, Earhart surrendered to the pastoral call, believing no one is more forgiven than he is. A dozen years ago Earhart married Shari Albertson, and the couple have six children, ages 10 to 3: Mitch, Mandy, Michael, Melissa, Miles, and Matthew. Shari, a former kindergarten teacher, home-schools the offspring.
Upper Room Assembly is the only mixed-race church in sparsely populated Gates County, which is 64 percent white and 33 percent black. Earhart is white, but half the volunteer leadership team, including associate pastor Arthur M. Mitchell, is African-American.
Mitchell spent time in the same regional correctional facility Earhart did earlier. Mitchell says he sensed an instant rapport when Earhart came to preach at the penitentiary. Mitchell began attending Upper Room on Sunday morning release passes. In much the same way before his freedom, Earhart visited Carpenter’s Shop International Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Ahoskie, 26 miles south of Gatesville. Carpenter’s Shop Pastor Wallace Phillips quickly recognized a ministerial calling on Earhart’s life.
Earhart urged Mitchell, after his 2006 release, to enroll in the AG’s North Carolina District School of Ministry. Three times Mitchell signed up, but he found excuses to not attend. Finally, he succumbed, and he says the two years of classes proved transformational.
“Despite an extensive background of heinous crimes, a history of incarceration, using drugs, and shooting people, I have been taught correctly,” says Mitchell, 42. “It’s been a spiritual impartation of power, integrity, and respect. Men and women have sown into me, telling me the pitfalls and traps to avoid, and saturated my heart and life with the gospel.”
Mitchell, who is production manager at a sawmill, received AG ministerial credentials three years ago, and now is director of Upper Room’s prison ministry. Mitchell says he admires Earhart for persevering assisting others to find their God-given purpose.
“I’ve watched Pastor Eric help people over and over, some who stab him in the back,” Mitchell says. “I let him down at times, but he still extended his hand to me. Others have invested in me, but Eric is the one who stayed in the trenches with me when I seemed like a lost cause.”
Joshua E. Smith likewise appreciates Earhart for mentoring him. Smith, 26, has been living in an apartment above Earhart’s garage since October 2015, the last time he used illegal drugs. A heroin addict starting at age 12, Smith first attended Upper Room Assembly in 2014 while on probation. He found the nonjudgmental attitude of adherents refreshing.
Still, Smith fell back into hanging out with former contacts, and relapsed into drug use. When he reached the breaking point, Smith begged Earhart for a second chance. That’s when Eric and Shari agreed to allow him to stay on their property, in part to get him away from old influences.
“They have helped me by constantly encouraging me, teaching me more about the Word and how to live as a Christian, and giving me a place to stay,” Smith says. “The people at Upper Room Assembly have been a big part of turning my life around.”
Initially, Earhart let Smith work as a janitor at the church. Three months later, in January 2016, Smith found a job at a McDonald’s restaurant in Ahoskie, and it’s his longest employment stretch ever. He also is near to finishing an associate’s degree in business administration at Roanoke-Chowan Community College.IMAGE - Eric Earhart (center) has mentored Joshua Smith (left) and Arthur Mitchell.