From drug addict to divinity degree

James Wilfong earns bachelor's degree
Feb. 23, 2014 @ 08:24 AM

James Wilfong once walked the streets of Lenoir looking for crack cocaine. His mother, Shirley Tate, went to prison when he was 14 for killing his father. Instead of hitting the books at Hibriten High, he hit the bottle, often coming to school so loaded he could hardly stand up. He did time in jail for breaking into homes, including a midnight burglary that sent him away for five years.

The ex-con who well-known to local cops is now known for his fire-breathing, animated sermons at West End Mennonite Brethren Church. Friday night, he capped off his turnaround by receiving a bachelor's degree in divinity he spent the past four years earning at West Lenoir Baptist School of Ministry.

"It's been a great ride from where I was," he said. "When I look back, I go, 'Wow.' Most people say, 'I couldn't do it, or won't do it.'"

Wilfong says he was saved in 1997 after a two-day crack binge.

"I cried out to God, 'If you don't change me tonight, I'm going to kill myself,'" Wilfong said.

After asking for forgiveness, he made his rounds to the police officers who arrested him for more forgiveness.

"Everybody knows me, what kind of life I used to live," Wilfong said. "My only regret is the way I treated my community. I know I can't make up for it."

Before giving his fire-and-brimstone sermons at West End Mennonite, Wilfong took to the streets again, wearing a white robe and gripping a trumpet. He would walk up and down U.S. 321 between Lenoir and Hickory, blaring the trumpet and delivering a message of hope and salvation.

Wilfong earned his GED in 1987 from Catawba Valley Community College. He has no plans to leave the church, but he hopes the divinity degree will open up more opportunities. But for now, Wilfong is content working his congregation up to a fever pitch as he prances behind the pulpit.

"Every day I wake up and want to make a difference, whether it's just a smile or a hello," he said. "People need to be encouraged. Their surface might look clean, but their inside might be all tore up."

Wilfong and his wife, Anita, have been married for 16 years. They have three children, 32, 15 and 13.