A 22,000-member Methodist megachurch in Kansas has hired a man who was found guilty of murder and then exonerated after 24 years behind bars to be its newest associate pastor after he completed seminary in December.
Although Darryl Burton grew up in the Baptist faith, he stopped going to church during his teen years, became increasingly disillusioned with religion and grew to be a skeptic of God. As Burton distanced himself from the church, his grandmother warned him that "one of these days, boy, you are going to need Jesus. I hope you remember to call on Him."
While Burton didn't think much of his late grandmother's words at the time, those words rang through his head as he sat for two decades in prison after he was convicted in 1985 for a murder he didn't commit.
In a Monday interview with The Christian Post, Burton, who recently assumed his new role as the associate pastor in congregational care at the Church of Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, said it took over 15 years in prison before he finally opened his heart to Christ.
"For the first 15 years or so I was just trying to do everything in my own abilities. Of course, I was really angry and upset and really frustrated about my situation and being wrongfully imprisoned," Burton explained. "I said, 'Well, I have tried everything but God, what do I have to lose.' I just challenged Jesus — 'If you're real, show me. If you help me, I will serve you and tell the world about you.'"
Knowing that his guilty verdict was due to two prosecution witnesses lying in their testimony and saying that Burton had committed the murder of a St. Louis man, Burton wrote over 700 letters to lawmakers, attorneys and activists who are known for helping free wrongly convicted inmates.
After years of waiting for legal assistance, Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to taking on cases of those wrongly convicted, came to his aid and headed an eight-year legal battle that eventually led a judge to overturn Burton's conviction in 2008 on the grounds that his 1985 trial was constitutionally flawed.
Although he spent over 24 years in prison, Burton, who was aided to Christ by various prison ministries and a devout man who hounded him for seven years to accept Christ, never blamed God for putting him in prison and explained that he saw similarities between his imprisonment and that of Joseph from the Bible.
"I think God used the situation the same way with Joseph when Joseph was thrown in the prison and treated by his brothers in a way that was not right," Burton stated. "'What man and human beings made for evil, God used for good.' That's the way I look at it. I never blamed God. God didn't throw me in there."
After Burton was released from prison in 2008, it took him a few years before he finally realized that he was called to become a pastor. In a one-year span, Burton said he was asked on two separate occasions whether or not he was interested in becoming a pastor.
"I tried to live without God before in my young life and now when I hear people talk about God, I am going to pay attention now," Burton told CP. "I said, 'Let me learn what pastors do' and I enrolled in seminary. I said, 'I am called to ministry and I better just obey God because not obeying God can really be costly.'"
In 2012, Burton, who never finished high school, began taking classes at Saint Paul School of Theology. And this past December, Burton graduated from the seminary. After his graduation, an associate pastor's job at the Church of Resurrection, a church he had previously interned with, was waiting for him.
"Of course, I wanted to tell the world about God but only God could write up a script like this," Burton said. "I had no imagination about anything that has happened in my life now."
Burton added that he has a large interest in prison ministry and re-entry ministries for the exonerated and youth.
"My role is just to be a humble servant and do whatever I am asked and whatever I am allowed to do," Burton said. "I just want to speak to the world as I said to Jesus that I would tell the world about Him. Whatever I can do to just get this message across the globe. Like I said, this church is too small. As [John] Wesley said, 'the world is my parish.'"
Karen Lampe, the executive pastor of congregational care at the Leawood congregation, told the Kansas City Star that Burton has been nothing but an "amazing gift to us."
"There's no one who represents himself more humbly than Darryl," Lampe said. "He just wants to do the very best he can. I think he's trying to make up for lost time."
Although Burton works for a church with over 20,000 members, making it one of the largest in the nation, he still believes that the church is not big enough and that there is room for the congregation to grow.
"Christ said to take it to all the nations of the Earth, so we still got work to do," Burton contended.