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Transforming Compassion

Faith-based prison ministry under the direction of Chaplain Bob Holyfield helps inmates develop character and find purpose.

Bob C. Holyfield began visiting prison and jails while a student at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, and he continued to do so throughout his 16 years of pastoral ministry in Indiana congregations.

Ultimately, the incarceration of his older son, Bobby Delayne, convinced Holyfield to enter prison ministry full-time as an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary chaplain.

“I never would have understood the pain or hurt unless my son had gone to prison,” Holyfield says.

While still at CBC, Holyfield attended a weeklong youth conflicts seminar in which teachings emphasized adapting biblical principles to impact daily living. Eventually, Holyfield wondered why those same teachings — on topics such as family relationships, bitterness, immorality, and addictions — couldn’t be taught to prisoners in an effort to change their lives. It took about a year to convince Arkansas prison officials to give the project a try in 1993.

Of the 250 inmates who signed up for the life principles seminar, 239 completed the intensive five-day, scripturally based training program in which they filled out answers in an 80-page workbook. Guilt-ridden inmates turned in shanks they had made and tore up pornography they had hidden.

Then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee facilitated expanding the program throughout the state starting in 1998. After the five-day concentrated course, qualifying prisoners desiring further discipleship move to special living quarters, where they learn more thorough instruction every day for 12 months. This includes character development, financial responsibility, and Scripture memorization.

Subsequently, Holyfield went to work as a full-time AG U.S. Missions chaplain as the Little Rock-based life principles prison ministry director. Since then he has led seminars in 200 prisons — run by both the government and private agencies — in 21 states and four foreign countries. Light for the Lost helps pay for some of the materials.

“Lots of volunteers want to come into prison to preach and bring a salvation message,” Holyfield says. “But in prison there needs to be a discipleship program to teach them how to live for God. The whole thrust is seeing guys who have come to know Christ be discipled over a year, and they in turn help other inmates to mature.”

The good-natured and mellow Holyfield is equally adept at talking to wardens and convicted murderers. Prison officials consider him a friend; many inmates see him as a father figure they never had.

Holyfield contends that most of those behind penitentiary walls are decent people who made a stupid mistake. Growing up, many came from strife-filled homes, heard they would never amount to anything, and didn’t have the opportunity to understand the Bible or Jesus.

“Christ is the only answer for them to change their lives,” Holyfield says. “When you show them the power of Christ’s salvation, they’re going to make it.”

Upon release from penitentiaries, some men who have accepted Jesus as Savior don’t feel welcome in traditional churches. Fifteen years ago, Holyfield became concerned that these men would fall away from their newfound faith. So he started an AG church in his rural Arkansas hometown of Hattieville. Several ex-convicts are among the 180 regular attendees, and some take turns preaching at Family Worship Center when Pastor Holyfield is away.

William Pearson, 48, was one of the inmates who heard Holyfield conduct a seminar at an Arkansas prison. Family Worship Center attendees took offerings for Pearson to purchase Global University courses. Upon Pearson’s release from prison after four years in 2003, Holyfield helped the former drug dealer secure a position on staff at the Hot Springs Teen Challenge center. Holyfield also encouraged Pearson to became a chaplain, and Pearson now is in that role at the maximum-security unit in Tucker, Arkansas, as well as a Pentecostal pastor in England, Arkansas.

“Bob Holyfield is my spiritual dad,” says Pearson, 50. “I talk to him every week, and bounce chaplain and pastor questions off him.”

In recent years, Holyfield has assisted 40 penitentiaries in setting up around-the-clock faith-based living units. Ruthie Westfahl, who coordinates the Florida Department of Corrections reception unit for women in Ocala, received training from Holyfield and views him as a godly visionary who inspires team-building.

“Chaplain Holyfield has lots of experience in his field and he uses it to teach and disciple others,” Westfahl says. “He sees us as individuals and listens carefully to what we say. He is skilled in asking questions and pulling everyone into meaningful conversation.”

Holyfield developed the structure and outline of the “Journey of Years” (JOY) program at the Florida Women’s Reception Center, and he trained volunteers involved as character coaches and curriculum teachers. Westfahl notes that Light for the Lost raised funds to pay for the curriculum used.

Likewise, Holyfield implemented a Principles and Applications for Life (PAL) program at the male Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, Florida, where men receive six months of Bible-based training. That process has included mentoring PAL coordinator Nathaniel Paine.

“I wouldn’t be in chaplain ministry today without Chaplain Holyfield,” Paine says. “He took me under his wing and trained me. He was kind of like a dad.”

In 2008, Holyfield suffered an unexpected near-fatal heart attack. To save his life, surgeons performed a quadruple bypass on two arteries that were almost completely blocked. Holyfield, who exercises regularly and is fit, took it all in stride. Forty days later, he returned to work.

At 66, Holyfield continues to make the daily 120-mile round-trip journey to his Little Rock office from his Hattieville home, usually putting in a 12-hour day counting driving. Holyfield looks forward to the day, within three years, when his son will be released from prison. Bobby Delayne is involved in the Arkansas PAL program and hopes to become a chaplain.

“I have no plans to retire,” says Holyfield, who has been married to his wife, Betty, for 47 years. “I love what I’m doing, and will keep going as long as the Lord gives me strength.”

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.