August 1, 2019

From Convict To Colporteur

It all started with a book.

Brenda Nieves

This book saved my life,” says Joshua Holly enthusiastically, holding up an ASI edition of Patriarchs and Prophets. Holly first found the book propping up a TV in his prison cell. “My cellmate handed it to me and said, ‘I think you’ll like this.’”

Penitentiary Surprise

Holly had been raised in a home that considered itself “Christian,” but in which drug use was a family affair, much like playing games or watching TV might be for another family. At age 17 he was sentenced to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. In prison Holly was introduced to gang life and became more deeply involved in drug use. After seven years, “I’d earned myself a spot in maximum security,” he says wryly. There God spoke to him.

“My best friend had committed suicide about a year before, and now I had hit such a low point that the thought of death was starting to appeal to me as well. I remember leaning against the door of my cell, completely and utterly depressed. God had to wait until I was that low before I was ready to listen. Suddenly all the hair on my arms and on the back of my neck stood up. I could feel the Holy Spirit in the room. God clearly told me, ‘I am real, and the Bible is true.’”

To that point, Holly says, the only use he’d had for a Bible was tearing out its pages to roll cigarettes. But now he picked up the Bible and started to read Romans. For the first time he learned of hope for a changed life. The encouragement to “keep reading” came. He began a period of intense Bible study, reading 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Holly estimates that over the next six months he probably read the Bible 40 or 50 times.

Yet despite his deep familiarity with the Word, he was confused. “Genesis was very confusing—I still believed in evolution, thinking that God had used it to create the world, and I couldn’t figure out who Lucifer was. God knew the burning desire of my heart to understand these things.” That’s when his cellmate, who had also become a Christian, pulled a book from the stack that was holding up the TV. As Holly read Patriarchs and Prophets, the Bible began to make sense. Holly’s questions about Lucifer were answered, and he realized that the Old Testament was not a collection of moral fairy tales, but rather true stories. He read the book through once, then again, with his Bible in hand.

God continued providentially providing for Holly’s spiritual growth. The same week that he found Patriarchs and Prophets, the prison TV system began showing sermons from Leo Schreven’s Prophecy Seminar. But Holly still had more questions, and God had more answers.

Holly was moved to a new cell. Under his bunk he found a stack of books taped together as a prop for doing push-ups. Holly broke open the stack and took out a new volume, The Great Controversy—another ASI edition. He started reading, and for the first time Revelation 13 began to make sense. He read the entire book.

After eight years and three months of incarceration, Holly was released. On his first Sabbath of freedom he found Adventist Fellowship, a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that Pastor Schreven had invited him to through the Prophecy seminars shown on the prison TV. Holly was baptized. Says Holly, “I didn’t understand the idea of being ‘dead to self.’ I thought that it was up to me to live up to the rules—but I really didn’t understand why I needed to keep those rules.”

The Challenge of Living It

With his immature faith and a family atmosphere actively working against his new Christian values, Holly easily slid back into his former lifestyle. “Sometimes I would try to recommit my life to God, but in the back of my mind I was always holding something back.” Not until he found himself running from a gun pointed at his head was Holly ready to surrender completely.

Just at that time a judge gave his mother, who was also struggling with drug addiction, an ultimatum: rehab or prison. It was time to act. With his desire for a new life and his reluctant mother in tow, Holly drove to City of Hope, a family-run Seventh-day Adventist rehabilitation center in Oklahoma City, where they both entered the rehab program. There they discovered the heart of the gospel: new life in Jesus. His mother was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church for the first time, and Holly was rebaptized—this time dying to self and being raised to a life powered by Jesus Christ.

As part of the six-month program, participants were required to attend the Oklahoma Conference camp meeting, where Holly shared his testimony with anyone who would listen. Hearing about his experience with Ellen White’s books, “someone told me about colporteuring. Right then I sensed God speaking to my heart, again saying, ‘You can make a living doing that.’”

Holly was excited. He’d never had trouble finding work, but he frequently ran into problems because he always kept the Sabbath, even after returning to his old life after his first baptism. “Over those seven years I’d lost three or four jobs because I wouldn’t work on Sabbath.” The other problem was that his coworkers continually introduced the very temptations he needed to avoid. Selling books sounded ideal.

God provided the books and the means, and Holly started knocking on doors. “The first time money [for a book] hit my hand, I thought, I just got paid to share my testimony!” He was elated, but he found the work exhausting. “I could only do it for two or three hours at a time. I was pouring out my story at each door.” Holly began searching for colporteur training and a team to work with.

Winning With Jesus

In January 2018 Holly was accepted as a theology student at Ouachita Hills College (OHC), an ASI member institution, where tuition costs are kept low through the income generated by student canvassing. With the training he’s received at OHC, Holly says that he’s now easily able to canvass eight hours a day.

Working with a team of OHC students, Holly has sold various books, but the ASI editions of the Conflict of the Ages Series remain his favorites. “I want to have a trunkful of these books [to sell] for the rest of my life. They are so beautiful—the cover art, the way they’re laid out. The paper isn’t dreary; it’s a nice white. And they have the most beautiful illustrations. When I’m showing these at the door, if I can just get people to listen long enough for me to open the book, 99 percent of the time they buy it.”

“Josh’s testimony shows the value of the work that ASI has done by investing in these books,” says Magda Rodriguez, president of OHC. “[Ellen White wrote]: ‘One soul saved, to live throughout the ages of eternity, to praise God and the Lamb, is of more value than millions in money.’* Holly’s testimony and his enthusiasm are already having an impact here on the OHC campus and wherever he tells his story. But it is only in eternity, when we are around the throne of Jesus, that we will see the true worth of our investments here on earth.”

*Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 2, p. 246.

Brenda Nieves teaches English at Ouachita Hills College.