WATCH: Celebrating 33 Years as Pastor, Bill Purvis of Columbus, GA, says, ‘I’m Not Impressed… I Know Me Too Well’


As Easter Sunday dawns, Pastor Bill Purvis and his congregation at Cascade Hills Church — more than 10,000 strong — will gather at Columbus Civic Center to celebrate the holiest of days.

Purvis’ story, from a troubled childhood to the pastor of the city’s largest church, has been told hundreds of times from his pulpit. Last week, Purvis, almost 60, released his first book, “Make A Break For It.” It outlines his journey to Christ.

Recently, Purvis sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his life, his church and his faith. Here are experts of that wide-ranging interview edited for length and clarity.

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Q: You’ve written “Make A Break For It,” and it’s essentially your life story wrapped around a message, right?

A: Yeah. What it was is about two years ago an agent called me and she had met my son in California. She represents some of the big people, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Lowenstein with Dr. Phil. She ran into my son and they were talking and somehow my story came about and she said, “I want to talk to your dad.” She called me and said, “I’d be interested in talking about this.”

I said, “OK. What do I do?” I’d never written a book. She decided that she would put me together with some writers. I remembered a writer that said years ago, “If you ever want to write a book, let me have a shot at it.” I said, “I know a guy,” and I told her about him, his name is Jim Lund. She said, “We’ve always wanted Jim to write for us.” He’s written, I think, 14 books and 13 best sellers. He just did one called, “Kidnapped by the Taliban,” it’s been a top seller.

Jim said, “I promised your dad I would do it and I’d be glad to.” He came from Bend, Ore., spent weeks with me and came back and spent three days with me. He helped me to format it.

Then, all of a sudden, publishers started calling and saying, “We want the first rights.” The agent chose and told me the best thing to go was Zondervan because of distribution. It’s my first book. It starts with my testimony, my story, and then it goes into what I learned and experienced afterward and how I radically — not just changed at that moment — but how I kept changing. That’s why they put the picture of the crab on there. When you see a crab shell on the beach, we assume that it’s dead and most of the time it’s not. Crabs have to change as much as 11 times in their lifetime to live. If they don’t change, they die.

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Q: I want to get in to a little bit of your story. You struggled growing up as a kid, right?

A: Yeah, and I didn’t know at that time. We didn’t have the term “dysfunctional family” — I didn’t know what that was, because to me it was a normal. It was home where I had a father who didn’t want a son in the home. He liked the adulation of women and he was an alcoholic at the time, so he was abusive. I would stay away from my home. I went there in the fourth grade and actually was living in Columbus. I was born in Okinawa, Japan, and he was stationed there. Then, he came back to Fort Benning and retired. We moved to Eufaula.

… I went to Admiral Moore Middle School. I was there the day it opened. Craziest thing was Admiral Moore — I didn’t know what an admiral was — he was nice to me and kind of called me Billy. The day that the school was opening, he got out of his car with all this white Navy décor — you know he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — he said, “Billy, come over here and give me a hand.” I went over there and he gave me a box to carry for him. The box was all his memorabilia that he was going to donate to the school to put in a glass showcase.

I said, “Why are they all dressed up? They named the school after you, you must be pretty important.” He put his arm around me and he said, “Billy, I’m not that important.” He was just as humble as could be, just a gentle spirit.

Q: Probably one of the most prominent people to ever come out of Eufaula, Ala.

A: Absolutely. Wise, and treated me — and many people did in Eufaula, a lot of father figures treated me — like a son, and I was aimless. Chuck, that’s the best word. I didn’t have direction. Nobody said, “This is where you ought to go in life. This is what you ought to do in life.” I was just aimless. I would hang around guys and friends and family, mainly to keep from going home. When I’d go home at night, I would count the hours: “OK, in the morning I can get up and leave,” because I just didn’t have a functional home, a good home.

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Q: Tom Mann, the professional fisherman and businessman, was one of your father figures, right?

A: Yep. They put the city on the map. Tom used to drive by here — I didn’t know this until after he passed away — but his sister, he used to take her back up to one of the Carolinas, and she said every time that she rode by the church he would say, “Now, that boy right there. Let me tell you a story.” She said he’d tell it all the way to Atlanta.

Tommy Mann was my age. He actually called me and I went down to see him and he had cancer and he was dying. He told his mother that he had the flu — she didn’t know. She took him in and Tom had died and she would say, “He’s just sick and trying to get over it.” He said, “I’m dying, but I don’t want my mother to be concerned. Bill, I want you to do my funeral.” We had a great conversation on that and I did his funeral. I talked to Sharon just about two days ago on the phone. His sister Sharon called me.

Q: Sharon’s good people.

A: Yeah, married Bill Dixon.

Q: Yeah, and I know Bill.

A: Our paths cross a lot.

Q: No doubt.

A: Eufaula was kind of a salt of the earth, good people.

Q: How did you find focus when you were aimless?

A: Here’s what happened, Chuck. I guess somebody saw that I needed change in my life, because a guy — I’d heard he had done this — he went to a church and they said, “If you know somebody that really needs God, you need to go tell them about God.”

This guy comes up to my door, and he knocks on the door and he says, “Bill” — and he’s real nervous — “Everything you’re looking for can be found in Jesus. I got to go.” Then he took off. I guess he was just getting it off his conscience. That was his way of trying to say, “I want to go tell somebody about God.”

Q: What were you doing at the time?

A: During that time, I was just drinking, doing marijuana, I was working — anything and everything. Chasing girls. On April 28, 1974, I’m here in Columbus. I’m driving down, I think it’s Third Avenue — I’ve always wanted to go back to that spot, it was about Third Avenue — and there was a lady on a street corner, 2 a.m. in the morning, on a Sunday morning, and I had a friend with me named Danny. We turned the corner and I saw this prostitute — I knew a lady dressed up like this in a short skirt and high heels and all dressed up at 2 a.m. in the morning was there for something. I had never tried that before, I was so empty, so I turned to my friend and said, “Have you ever been with a prostitute?”

He warned me not to. He said, “No, Bill. Let’s don’t do this.” He was a little nervous.

I was reckless. I said, “Oh, come on.” I drove up and pulled up beside her and had a conversation with her. Now here’s where it turned crazy.

A guy comes out of these bushes he’s hiding behind and he walks around and he says to us, “I know what you guys are looking for. Let’s talk about a price.” I found out later that he had actually pressured her to do that. He had been in prison. He wanted to kill somebody. He wanted to rob them, kill them, take what they had. He was looking for young, gullible, foolish people, and we fit the bill.

We were like, “Boy, that’s a mark we needed.” He had a strong smell of alcohol — it was so strong I could smell it 3 feet away. We get in the car, me and Danny and he and the girl, which is his wife I found out later. He directs us to a house over by the Medical Center. He directs us there and then they wait in the car, he and Danny stay in the car. Danny slides over in the driver seat. Me and her go up, we walk up into this kind of add-on or lean-to to the back of the house. Walk up these old rickety steps, open this door that was barely hanging on — when we do that we step in a room. There’s a bed, kind of one single cot on one side of the room and a chifferobe there and then another door that leads to the rest of the house. A single light is hanging down. We stand there and I turn around and I lock the door.

She has the light on. She turns the light on and she gets fully undressed. I do the same thing — I’m following her lead so I get fully undressed. She points to the bed, so I step over there and I sit down for a minute and she starts to walk over there. About that time, she steps back up, and this time she turned the light off as I sat down; she turns it back on. What I didn’t know is that was a signal. She had told him, “I’ll turn the light off. That gives you time to be prepared.” He’d orchestrated it.

In the meantime, he’d been in the car with my friend. He said, “I got to go smoke a cigarette.” He got out and he walked around the front of the house and he came through. When he came through, he stopped off by the kitchen and picked up a butcher knife. The blade on the knife was nine and a half inches long. He’s standing by the door. When she turns the light off, he steps in. I’m sitting on the bed and all of a sudden I hear the floor creak. I realize somebody else is in the room because I thought she was standing here. Then I can smell the strong smell of alcohol, just like I had in the car. I wasn’t the smartest guy in the world, or I wouldn’t have been there anyway, but I quickly figured out somebody else is in this room. Something’s going on. I jumped up. When I jumped up, we almost bumped into each other. She turns the light on, the light blinds me and I’m seeing him face to face.

I’ll tell you who he looked like — it was the craziest thing. A reporter asked me this one time, “What did he look like? Describe his features.” He could pass for Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s exactly how he looked.

Wasn’t a tall man — he was smaller — but he’s standing there and the words he said to me were, “Now you’re going to die.” I looked down and in his right hand was the butcher knife. Before I had a chance to move, it went into my chest. I actually saw the handle of the knife go in. It felt like being hit in the side with a baseball bat. The first time he stabbed me, I went, “Huh.” And it just took my wind out. It came out my back. It took out my sac, the pericardium, the sac that protects your heart from hitting your rib cage. It’s filled with fluid. Before I could move, he pulled it out and swung the second time. This time, it looked like it was coming toward my eye, so I leaped back and it went in my throat. It went in one side and it came out the other. It cut my jugular vein completely in half. As far as known, I’m one of the few people in the world to live with a jugular vein cut completely in half. Supposed to die in four minutes for that.

By this time now, I’m alert enough to realize, “This is crazy. I’ve got to get out of here.” I’m afraid, adrenaline’s running, so I push him back some and then I hit him with my left hand. He starts to fall — it probably wasn’t my force, it may have been, but him being drunk already helped me. He started to fall back and just naturally I saw his arm come up, so I grabbed his leg. As he was going back, I pulled real hard because I had to go over him to get out. His head hit that wooden floor so hard, that was the loudest sound. I mean it almost echoed in the room. I would have thought that would have killed him. I had to step over him to get to the door, but he’s laying on his back and he swings it a third time and stabs me in the liver. I’d had a friend one time, stabbed one time with an ice pick and he died. I’d already been stabbed three times, chest, throat and liver. Didn’t know it was in the liver at the time, but I knew that I was in bad shape.

I hit the door. The problem was as I was trying to go out the door, he scrambled to get up. The girl is screaming in the background and I had locked the door. Now, I don’t have time to figure out the lock. I just backed up and as hard as I could, because the door was kind of wobbly anyway, I hit it as hard as I could with my shoulder. I mean, I ran through the door. The door didn’t open like this, it just fell down flat. My friend in the car, Danny, said, “I was hearing all kind of commotion and banging. I had the window down on the car and I’m trying to look and see what’s going on. Suddenly I just saw this door come down. There you are standing completely naked, covered in blood. It was like something out of a horror movie.”

I leaped off the steps, ran past the car, hit the hood of the car and screamed, “Get out of here.” I ran out into the theater, the Three Arts Theater parking lot, and I stumbled, I was bleeding everywhere, I couldn’t hardly breathe. My throat was bleeding so bad, my lungs were even having a problem breathing. I grabbed a light pole in the Triage Theater parking lot, and kind of slid down it. And here’s what’s crazy, Chuck: I heard the words of that guy two weeks earlier, just as clear as you hear me now. I heard those words, “Everything you’re looking for can be found in Jesus.” I’d never been in church, I’d never read the Bible, I’d never prayed a prayer. I was just an aimless kid. I didn’t know what …

Q: How old were you?

A: I was 17 years old. I was two weeks from being 18. I’m dying in the streets, knowing I’m dying at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Here’s what I did: I just prayed, I just said, “Jesus I give you my life. Come into my life. Forgive me of my sins. Come into my life and help me.” My friend backed the car up, he was cranking the car and squealing wheels. He wheeled around, fortunately we were only a block from the Medical Center. He wheeled up, I jumped in the car, and I’m glad he also knew where to go. He wheeled up to the medical center — in those days they had a canopy — we wheeled right up under it. There was an orderly I’ll never forget, his name was Russell, and we wheeled up and he had stepped out for a cigarette break and he was wearing all white. I fell up against him and said, “I need some help.” He just picked me up, ran in and threw me on the nearest gurney.

Then he started running down the hallway with me. When he started running down, somebody else came out and grabbed it and started helping. I remember as we were turning into the room, the front of his outfit solid white, when he turned around it looked just like total red. I mean like somebody had just thrown paint all over it. When Doug Pullen (then assistant district attorney) came to the hospital, he said, “I didn’t have to look for you. I just followed the trail of blood. It looks like somebody took red paint and threw it all the way down the hallway.” They rushed me to a room. Dr. Phillip Brewer, the cardiovascular surgeon put his hand on my throat.

Two or three other doctors rushed in and I heard one of them say, “Get the DA up here. This man’s been stabbed to death. He’s not dead, yet, but his jugular vein is completely severed.” The next thing I know, I’m going out and they’re doing surgery on me. My throat was swelling up so big and I could hardly breathe, and I remember before I even went out, I remember them cutting that with a scalpel. I remember them coming toward me and trying to put stuff on me to get me to go to sleep. I remember that, and then I wake up the next morning and I’m in a hospital room with machines all around and police outside the door and everybody wants to get a statement.

There’s doctors in and out of the room, and I’m thinking, “Man, I thought that was a bad dream or nightmare and that really happened.”

Q: That’s the epitome of a near-death experience.

A: It was for me a whole change of life. It was faith in God that … when I asked God to come into my life, he really did. I remember that I was in the hospital room and friends would come in and say, “You want us to bring a girl up here? You want us to bring you a beer or something like that?” I remember taking them one day, I just got them all up and said, “Come here.” I had an IV on me and I walked over to the mirror and I said, ‘Y’all see that?’ There was all of us looking in the mirror. I said this: “I don’t know what it is, but the guy you see in that mirror is not the same guy I was a week ago. There’s something on the inside different. I want to forgive people. I want to go to people that I’ve wronged and ask them to forgive me. I want to read a Bible.”

Q: When did you start Cascade Hills?

A: Cascade actually was begun before me. They’d had seven other pastors. It was begun in ’56 and the longest tenure a man had was Wallace Smarr. He’d been here 10 years. They’d had a lot of good pastors before, a retired colonel, Tarno, Col. Warren Tarno, and several good guys. The guy before me, he just was brutal and didn’t connect to the people and the attendance had really gone down to 32 people before I came.

Q: What year was that?

A: It was Easter Sunday 1983. What’s crazy is that on Easter 1983 we had 32 people that first Sunday, and last Easter at the Civic Center we had 10,542 — in Columbus, Ga., a city saturated with churches.

Q: Is this the largest church congregation in Columbus?

A: Yeah. Our secret is this, our mission is, and we know clearly what we want to do, I want to reach people that don’t go to church. We are the church for the unchurched. You’ll see kind of a who’s who of sinners. You’ll see people that never were raised in church, people that didn’t feel that there was a place for them in a church. I’ve always wanted with all integrity to never hurt another church. I’ve always said if somebody goes to another church, “Stay there. They need you, you’re there for a reason.” If they don’t go to a church, then I want to go after them.

Q: That’s a pretty broad pool at times in Columbus.

A: It is. Our competition was Al Who’s and everybody else. I wanted the rasslin’ crowd and all the rest. I wanted everybody who didn’t go to church. Because of that we connect with them and give people hope.

Q: Is it hard for you to believe you have built a church so large you have to go to the Civic Center for your Easter Sunday service?

A: Yeah, I sometimes feel like this, I feel like God’s done it in spite of me. See, here’s the deal, Chuck. Some people come in and say, “Oh, there’s that pastor of that megachurch.” I’m not impressed with me. I know me too well. I’m the guy that I get in trouble because if I’m in a Publix, I’ll have 14 items in my cart and it says 10 items or less and I’ll still go through.

Q: You don’t follow rules very …

A: I don’t follow all the rules, I hate it. I want to. My daughter-in-law is one of these real rules-oriented people and we were going on a plane trip a while back and they called Zone 1 and I said, “Come on.”

She said, “No. Our ticket says Zone 3.” I said, “Oh, come on.”

Q: So you’re that guy that’ll jump zones in the airport?

A: Yeah. That’s why I probably need all the eyes I have on me watching me. I need a wife like I have that is a real voice. She’s real big on being accurate. She says, “Don’t say about 500. Say it’s 493 or it’s 510, but be accurate.” I need those in my life because that helps me. I laugh a lot, I enjoy life, I can’t believe I’m the pastor of this church. Literally — I do this every week — I have 1,100 people that pray for me every day. I have this huge prayer partner ministry.

Before I go preach or speak, I’ll sit in this room and I’ll say, “God, I don’t love those people like you do. I don’t know what they’re going through. I don’t know what fears they face today. God, help me today to love those people like you do.” When I walk in there, I feel like I can speak to them out of love.

Q: Cascade Hills is a very diverse congregation, right?

A: Yeah, we have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians and mixed couples. I feel like it’s not an issue of what race. We’re all a part of the human race. … I’m not in competition with another church. I want to see them blessed, I want to see them grow. We never set out to be the biggest. There can be only be one biggest, and that’s not our goal.

Q: Not only are you the biggest, you’re probably the most visible because of your location on one of the busiest roads in this town. Does the visibility contribute to the growth?

A: It does help. We were at one time at 45th Street and we outgrew. We bought five houses and we outgrew all that. We were doing services where we were making it really congested in the neighborhood. People couldn’t get out of their houses for cars everywhere. We were driving down this road, and my wife’s the one that brought it up. I made a promise — I’d seen too many churches start in one location and they relocate and they’ll go eight or 10 miles away — those senior adults were the ones that brought me here and I didn’t want to go off and leave them. I felt like they spent their life building that church and staying there when it went through rough times, and I just couldn’t get off and leave them. I took a map and drew one mile around. I said, “I won’t go further than 1 mile.”

… My wife was driving down the road one day and they used this for the golf tournament, Southern Open golf tournament parking when they were at Green Island. (Builder) Ray Wright owned the land. It was just a swamp.

My wife said, “Why don’t you call about that land?” I looked and it was a long, narrow strip. I called Ray Wright — greatest story — I met Ray, I never had met him before, told him what I wanted to do and he and I start talking and he’s got an attorney in the room. We’re talking and I said, “I’d like to see what you would sell that land for.” It was a lot higher than what we paid. We paid only $560,000 for it.

I remember that he listened to me and he said, “What are you going to say that convinces me to sell that land to you?”

I said, “OK, Mr. Wright. You own a lot of property all over this city. You’ve made a lot of money in property. Wouldn’t you like to do something that makes a difference? That lives on after you live? That helps people even when you’re gone?”

He said, “Come on.” We got up and went in the backroom. He said, “That attorney’s not going to be happy with me, but I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to give you that land for exactly what I paid for it, the only deal of my life I never made a penny on.”

Here’s what was cool: When Ray had cancer, he called me and we talked. I went over to his house and I gave him a Bible. I had a Bible with his name printed on the outside. I had written “Romans 10:13,” which says, ‘Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I marked it. I gave that Bible to him and said, “I want to thank you for doing what you did and I want to give you this.” We’d not even built the building at that time. When he passed away, one of the people in his home said right by his bedside was that Bible. They said it was opened to that very passage.

They said, “Bill, it meant the world to my dad. My dad said he could read people. My dad kept saying that guy is authentic.” I didn’t know about that. I was just human. I treasure what he did. That allowed us to get here and to build. The visibility’s made it easy for access and visibility and it’s helped us.

… I’ll tell you something else that’s really cool too, Chuck. You know that prayer pole? That pole that I grabbed up that night?

Q: Yeah.

A: I did this and I didn’t tell the church — this was never publicized and then the word got out. I said, “Well, I might as well tell you because you’ll hear it in the street.” Every year, April 28 every year, I would go back to that place at the Three Arts Theater. I would get outside, I would kneel by that pole and I would thank God for what he did for me when I had nothing at 17. I do that every single year for 30 years. One time I was in Dallas, Texas, and I got a flight back. I was speaking there for three days. That morning, I got up and left the hotel room, flew back to Atlanta, then flew to Columbus, Ga., then got a taxi to take me over there. Got out, went over there and knelt down and prayed, got back in the taxi, went back to the airport, back to Atlanta, back to Dallas and spoke that night.

Q: Let’s shift gears just a little bit. I mean, I know you’ve got to be very proud of what you’ve built here.

A: Well, it’s the people and God.

Q: Some people in town will refer to this, and it’s derogatory in some ways, but they call this, “Six Flags over Jesus.” What do you think when you hear that?

A: That don’t matter. I think they mean it like, “Well, that’s just where everybody goes.” I think, well, there’s nothing I can do about the label. I had a guy one time came and apologized to me, he called us Bill Heard Baptist, because we’ve got that sign. He said, “I didn’t know it would go anywhere. I just made the Bill Heard Baptist; the next thing I know, it’s going everywhere. I want to apologize. I just said it as a joke.” I’ve learned that if you do anything worthwhile, you’ll attract some criticism.

Q: Do you have to have thick skin or do you have to be careful about how you react to some of that criticism?

A: I’ve not always acted well with it. There are times — I’ll be honest with you — raised in Eufaula, the redneck can come out that I thought was gone. I honestly have told people before, “If I ever said anything to offend you, please come up and tell me. I’ll apologize.” Honestly, my heart is this: I would rather have my own feelings hurt than hurt somebody else’s. I can get over it if they hurt me. I will never intentionally hurt somebody else. When it comes to the thick skin side, I think you have to know your motives.

Q: One of the things when you hear people talk about the megachurches, they talk about prosperity gospel. I know you mentioned Joel Osteen and his agent was one of the ones that reached out to you. How do you define prosperity gospel?

A: You can take anything and abuse it — sex, alcohol, anything — you can abuse it. There’s some people that really do teach a gospel that God wants you rich. I don’t know that he wants you rich. I consider riches and blessing more than money. I’m blessed with a wonderful wife and great kids. I’m blessed with relationships. There’s a lot of that, but I consider I’m rich in that way. I may not be able to go out and live a material life like some people do, but I wouldn’t trade my life for what they have. I see the blessings. I know where I came from and where I am.

Q: This is your first book. What’s your next book?

A: If I do another one, it’ll be on marriage. It’s because I’ve got so much material. I do a marriage retreat every year and it sells out within no time, the moment we announce it. Everybody comes to it. We talk about things we can’t talk about publicly in the pulpit. We can’t record it. We’ll talk about sex, and we’ll talk about the arguments and trigger points, and baggage that we brought into a marriage. So, my next one will probably be on marriage. There may be one on leadership at some point.

Q: Do you consider your story amazing?

A: If I look back and listen to it, I’ve lived with it so much that it’s normal to me, but when I see the response of people. … Like yesterday, this television program is a large one in Canada, it covers all of Canada. They had a live audience and the minute I start doing that, the guys are leaning in and the people when it’s over are like, “Wow.” I think maybe it’s just I’m familiar with it, but it is one of a kind. I know God can do the same for anybody else. I don’t want them to get in my situation, but I know he can turn theirs around just as radically as he did mine. Maybe God chose me, the bottom of the barrel, to give hope to everybody else. There’s hope for them.”

SOURCE: Chuck Williams 
The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer


Age: 59

Job: Senior pastor, Cascade Hills Church, Columbus. Easter Sunday marks his 33rd year as pastor.

Education: Attended Eufaula High School through the 11th grade. Got his GED. Attended Southern Union Community College. Three degrees from Luther Rice College and Seminary, Lithonia, Ga., master’s of arts, 1998; master’s of divinity, 2006; doctor of ministry, 2007.

Family: Debbie, wife of 36 years; three sons, B.J., Brent and Blake; and six grandchildren.

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