David Holland says his single mom raised him right. He went to church and knew about God. But when he got older, he “branched out into different areas.” Soon, he was mired in a life of crime and addiction.
Between the ages of 21 and 40, Holland estimates he spent eight-plus years incarcerated for short-term sentences on a range of charges, such as cocaine possession with intent to sell and domestic violence.
David Holland (right) and his pastor Shaun Pillay celebrate a baptismal service for Cornerstone City Church in Norwich, Conn. Holland, the first person to come to Christ through the church plant, now is Cornerstone’s community outreach organizer.
Incarceration, Holland now believes, was God working to rescue him from his addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine. His brother remembers him as looking like a dying HIV patient during that time.
“A lot of my friends are dead,” said Holland, of Norwich, Conn. “If they aren’t dead, they probably wish they were because they are crippled, paralyzed or addicted to drugs.”
Violence claimed the life of one of his closest friends, gunned down by rivals in broad daylight. The friend’s death gripped Holland with fear, so he went home and destroyed all of his drugs and related paraphernalia, then started praying.
“I just started praying to God, and it was scaring me more because I knew He was hearing me,” Holland said. “I knew He was answering me.”
The answer started with a carpet-cleaning job. One of Holland’s first assignments was to clean the carpet at a Southern Baptist church plant, Cornerstone City Church. While struggling to clean a pesky stain, he was approached by pastor Shaun Pillay.
“You know that stain you keep trying to get, we have them in our heart too,” the church planter said. “Sometimes when we try to get rid of them we can’t. But Jesus can.”
Pillay gave Holland a Bible and pointed him to Psalm 46:10, with its instruction to be still as God does His work in and through a person’s life.
Pillay, an Asian Indian who grew up in Durban, South Africa, had come to Norwich to start an inner-city church. The launch was upcoming on Easter Sunday, April 7, 2009, and he invited Holland. During the service’s invitation, Holland responded.
“It was like God took everything off of me,” Holland said. “My socks, shoes, and shoestrings. It was like I was stripped naked.
David Holland is a former drug dealer who now serves as the Cornerstone City Church’s community outreach organizer in Norwich, Conn. He drives the church van on Sundays, returning to former haunts to invite and drive people to church.
“I was reborn that day in that church. We have those stains in our heart that only Jesus can clean.”
Pillay not only gained the church’s first convert, he gained a person of peace who connected Cornerstone to the city.
The Rose of New England
Norwich, in southeastern Connecticut, has a rich history of manufacturing and shipping. The city played a significant role in the American Revolution with its production of ships and munitions. Today, it has about 40,000 residents and is called “The Rose of New England.”
The city’s heritage had little effect on Holland. By the time he was in high school, his reputation as an athlete was beginning to gain him favors – playing with older students who started giving him drugs.
The last of five children, Holland kept his newfound habits from her. When she finally figured out what he was doing, she was deeply hurt. Holland’s mom was the first of many who would be hurt.
By 21, he met someone who offered him the opportunity to make money selling drugs.
“It seemed good, but it never was good,” Holland said. “It was nothing but total chaos. Not one bit of it was fun.”
Those years are painful to remember, but Holland now understands that his previous drug use was a boot camp for his current ministry as Cornerstone City Church’s community outreach organizer. He’s like a one-man fire department, on call 24 hours a day to respond to emergency calls from addicts, homeless and others.
“We are the number one church called to do anything,” Holland said of Cornerstone’s reputation in the region.
His old haunts are now his mission field.
Shortly after his conversion, Holland started street witnessing. The pastor knew that Holland needed mentoring and discipleship first. For the next few years, they met regularly for that purpose. And they intentionally met in different places around Norwich because wherever they went Holland knew people.
“He has had significant growth in Christ,” said Pillay, who is also a North American Mission Board church planting catalyst. “All the people that he used to sell drugs to he was intentional to go back and reach them.”
Holland’s transformation has been evident beyond Cornerstone. He and Pillay have visited with Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy on several occasions, and he has connected with the ministries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich. And he received a Connecticut NAACP Humanitarian Award for 2015.
Holland also serves the Baptist Convention of New England as a board member.
As Terry Dorsett, BCNE’s executive director, recounted, “When David was asked to be on the board of directors, his first response was that he did not know much about being on a board, but was willing to serve the Lord in any way he could.
“I remember telling him that that was exactly the kind of heart we were looking for in board members and he responded by saying, ‘You can count on me.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton is a writer and photojournalist living in Atlanta.)