- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) - It’s a Sunday in November at Christ Temple, in a once troubled neighborhood at the corner of 12th and MLK in Paducah, and for the next hour the collective energy among the congregation ebbs and flows.

During a burst of gospel music, it hits a crescendo, spirits living out lyrics echoing in the worship hall.

“Lift it up,” the singer’s deep and soulful voice soars. “Lift it on up,” the choir repeats, over guitars, drums and keyboard.

Hundreds are standing, swaying to the music. Hands are clasped in prayer or clapping to the rhythm.

After the final choruses, the music tapers and worshippers settle in their chairs.

The Rev. Anthony Walton, the pastor since 2000, whose crime-to-Christian, felon-to-faith redemption resembles the church’s, begins. The day’s theme: Get in the faith, he says, and stay in.

“He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved,” Walton says.

The congregation, over crying babies and fussing toddlers, agrees. “Yes” and “amen,” they call out. Hands extend upward.

Walton’s words are conversational at first. He picks up the pace as he dives deeper.

“Jesus came that we might have life, we might have a second chance. … If we believe in Him, if we believe on Him, then we might be redeemed .”

Walton doesn’t write his sermons in advance. They’re given to him from above, he says. They’re not just messages - they’re the right messages.

“Why did He do it? He did it for mankind. He did it for you and I .”

His words are strong and fast now, with emphasis and passion. The congregation stirs. He talks about salvation, spirit and avoiding temptation. He talks about trust.

“You gotta say, ‘OK, Lord, I give you my life, I surrender my life to you .’”

Change isn’t easy, he says. This isn’t prosperity gospel - hard times will come. This isn’t Burger King - you can’t have it your way.

Calls from congregants grow louder. Drums begin to beat. Cymbals clash. People rise again.

“The devil is going to throw all sorts of things at you, so you’ve got to stay right. … Get yourself together and stay there.”

Anything less, he cautions, is “Russian roulette with your soul.”

Then Walton, slowing, catching his breath, lowers the temperature. He reiterates the line he knows too well.

“He that endure to the end,” he says, “the same shall be saved.”

Walton, 58, doesn’t shy from who he is today, or was years ago. The tapestry of his life: church leader, father of three, husband of 34 years to Deborah, believer, ex-con.

He is the author of “Under the Shadow: The Full Story” and host of “LIFE after Lockup,” a TV show about ex-offenders, post-incarceration.

Walton was convicted in 1979 of armed robbery in Nashville. He got $13 from the robbery, and was sentenced to 12 years, serving three years and two months.

He reports his life honestly and unflinchingly in “Under the Shadow,” released earlier this year. He writes about regular beatings from his abusive father during childhood; womanizing as a young man; a budding career as a Nashville comedian; and marrying Deborah, a seminal moment.

He writes about pointing the gun at a woman at a carwash for her money, lying to Deborah about his guilt, and another pivotal moment - considering suicide in his prison cell.

Walton twisted the sheet into a rope. Thought about which pipe above would hold his weight. He stopped when he saw a book at the window.

It was old and torn, a Bible.

Life began anew at rediscovering faith, though true to his Sunday sermon, it’s not been without struggle, tragedies and loss. He left prison in 1987, living out blessings like work and ministering since.

He and Deborah, whose loyalty to the marriage was tested but not broken during the prison years, began coming to Christ Temple in 1998, commuting from Nashville. Walton was installed as pastor in 2000. They moved to town in 2005.

When they arrived, the neighborhood around the church was like Dodge City in the Old West, they say, rife with drugs, violence and crime.

Drug deals happened just outside the church. People were arrested. Once, an empty whiskey bottle was thrown through a church window.

Things are better today, for the church and neighborhood. Christ Temple opened a new facility in 2012, capacity 345.

There are aspirations to build transitional housing - a “jump start,” the Waltons call it - on church property across the street.

In the early days, just a few people showed for worship. Today the number is 200 to 300 each Sunday.

The Waltons said their past helped shape their relationship with church members. A lot of them are trying to overcome their own checkered back stories, too.

“I feel like it caused other people to be relaxed about their past,” Walton said. “The majority of the people in our church, I would say the majority of them are ex-drug dealers, ex-felons.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Deborah, 60. “Because it made us who we are. And it made us have the kind of testimony we have. So many people that we run into need to hear our testimonies to know (change) is possible.”

While Walton has made peace with the past, the past, it seems, hasn’t always made peace with him.

For 10 years he visited the juvenile detention center in Paducah to minister young offenders from his church. That changed earlier this year to reflect a relatively new state law. A background check flagged Walton’s felony record. He said he’s no longer allowed at the facility.

It makes Walton ask: When is a debt to society paid? When is an offender right with the house again?

“After they do the time or sentence given them by the system, and finish their parole or probation, that should render them a ‘payment in full’ status,” he wrote earlier this year in an email to the Sun. “. Should they constantly have to be labeled based on a past mistake or choice?”

If LG Foster, 34, a Paducah resident and himself an ex-felon, had his say, Walton would provide guidance to more people, not fewer.

Foster, also abused as a child, served three years in prison for selling crack. He found Walton and the church after release, but didn’t stop dealing, at least not right away.

“We used to sit in the front row (at Christ Temple) and I had drugs on me all the time,” he said.

One Sunday, sitting near the pulpit, Foster was antsy. He had drugs with him. His phone was chirping. He was eager to leave, finish a deal. Money was waiting.

Walton found Foster, handed him a piece of paper with his phone number.

“Through that week, it was in my heart about me selling drugs still,” Foster said. He began meeting with Walton. They’d talk about the past, life, about a future without crime or the threat of prison.

“It took just a couple of times coming to that church and talking to him one on one to all the way quit,” Foster said. He earns his living today working construction, and never misses a Sunday at Christ Temple.

“The guy, his faith is remarkable,” Foster said of Walton. “. He helped me get back on my feet. He never wants anything back. It’s amazing the stuff he does for people.”

___

Information from: The Paducah Sun, http://www.paducahsun.com

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