ST. PETERSBURG – Minister Eddie Lee Pelham’s harrowing life led to multiple imprisonments, crack cocaine addiction and eventually homelessness. Having been incarcerated for over 25 years, he was another statistic of a black male life being lost.
Pelham had been in and out of correctional facilities since the age of 14 beginning with a stint at Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center. He also spent time in Sumter and Martin Correctional Institutions.
But his story is also a story of redemption. He credits his late grandmother Beullah Pelham for instilling in him the power of prayer.
“Now I can’t tell her how sorry I am,” he said. “Through her death God began to work in me.”
He then had another spiritual intervention when a prisoner, who was serving a life sentence, invited him to weekly Bible studies. Surprised by the violent gangs, rape and the availability of drugs behind the suffocating walls of prison, Pelham began talking to the young inmates about his personal life, crime and prison life, offering them hope and positive choices versus negative ones.
This concept became the nucleus for a program he co-founded called “Moving Forward with a Purpose, Inc.” He took his life experiences and developed a program for at-risk youth from ages 7-24 that addresses the needs and dangers of being a young, black man today.
He also wanted young men to be exposed to powerful influential black men.
“Moving Forward with a Purpose, Inc.” has a team of ex-offenders who go out into the community and speak to young men,” Pelham explained. “I have nothing against counselors. I find that our kids respond better to us because we’ve been there. You can’t “scare straight” kids that carry a 9 millimeter with word of mouth. Listening to reality affects them. Kids talk to me and trust me when I share my testimony.”
Wilbert Speights, Jr. is co-founder and vice-president of the program, which is under the umbrella of Community Opportunity for Our People, or COOP.
COOP is a group of diverse programs that offer multiple assistance including ex-offender re-entry programs, parenting, sports and fitness, education, entrepreneurial training, civic engagement and other major life skills.
It partners with St. Petersburg Police Department, the City of St. Petersburg Urban Affairs and the City of St. Petersburg Community Affairs. COOP’s mission is to motivate, empower and encourage African-American boys and men through biblical teachings, educational programs, mentoring and various other sources.
“We decided to join these groups together because we are all serving the same purpose,” Pelham explained. “We believe that we can reach more families in our community if we join together.”
He explained that Nikki Capehart, director of Urban Affairs for the City of St. Petersburg, really gave COOP the boost it needed. “She put so many things in perspective and into action for us, he averred.”
Some of the organizations under COOP are Tony Macon’s ACT Right, Carl Lavender’s many groups, the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and the Poynter Institute’s Write Field Program just to name a few.
His life mirrors many of the challenges that young black boys and men face every day, such as being raised primarily by his mother without his father being in the home; peer pressure and living pillow to post with various family members.
For a time he lived with his father in Washington, D.C., and joined a gang feeling it was the only way for him, a biracial child, to get protection from other gangs. “I made mistakes in my young adult life, and I’m sorry for the pain and hurt that I’ve caused,” Rev. Pelham said. “Accept responsibility,” he cautions young men. “I did everything I was charged with. When I accepted that, it helped me to grow up and to be a better person and a better man.”
He also believes that fathers need to “step up and be fathers” and stop thinking of their children as a necessary bill to pay.
Pelham became an ordained minister in 2013 and has been an associate pastor at St. John’s Primitive Baptist Church in Clearwater ever since.
Pastor Benjamin Adams of St. John’s brought Pelham into his ministerial staff because he believes he is being divinely navigated.
“I didn’t have to ponder over him long because he came with a story. His story is life changing. He is living proof that there is truly life after prison. God has called him for such a time as this as a living example of what He can do when you give Him your life,” said Adams.
He feels Pelham loves God and loves God’s people with a strong passion for the down trodden, the lost and the imprisoned. “It’s a pleasure having him there because he makes the Lord’s name great among men.”
To contact Going Forward with a Purpose, Inc. or COOP, please call Kiara Williams at (727) 346-8631, (727)895-6562 or email firstname.lastname@example.org