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This biographical sketch is about Nick Pirovolos, a remarkable Christian we have encountered:

GOD TURNS PRISONS INSIDE OUT

A slender, dark-haired convict in his early 20s knelt at a hospital bed in audible prayer.

"Lord, I can't handle my life any more," he mumbled. "Come in and take it over just the way Super-Mex says you will."

Smug smiles spread across several dark, scowling faces in the prison medical center.

"Look at the Greek," an inmate cried. "He's getting religion. He must be going to the parole board."

On the visible side there wasn't a great deal more than this to the spiritual turnabout of immigrant Nikalaos Pirovolos, known to Cleveland police as Nick the Greek tough and wily, gang leader and terrorist.

The precinct station felt better when the Greek finally was seized for armed robbery in a suburban party-store and sentenced to a long prison term.

Nick was furious when they put him away. In the quiet of his cell, he contemplated how he would use violence some day to square the rap with judges and all others responsible for these unpleasantries.

Then came the hospital encounter with x-ray technician Ernie Lavato, or Super-Mex. Lavato served as a ward orderly while doing time for shooting a policeman in Dayton, Ohio.

"What's happening, brother?" Ernie began with an ear-to-ear grin.

"I ain't got no brothers," Nick snarled.

"We're all brothers in Christ," the orderly responded.

Within days they established a limited degree of trust and Ernie slyly produced a Greek-English Bible.

"I've always wanted to learn Greek," he told Nick. "Can you help me while that head wound is getting better?"

As they dug into the Bible together, something began to happen to Nick. He became aware of his miserable surroundings and the gutter level of the life he was living.

"Like the Prodigal Son," he explained later, "I started coming back to myself. I never will forget Super-Mex. Never. He was there smiling when I prayed at my bed."

The prayer was uttered in 1972 and Nick's life was indeed changed. In the next three years he earned respect for what he said and did in prison.

He became a staff member to the chaplains at Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield. Eventually he was entrusted with the key to the coffee house where inmates often gathered to escape the heat, chill or boredom of the prison yard.

Here the conversation piece was not girls or football or baseball or paroles. The speakers talked about Jesus, and Nick was in the action center.

"We occasionally discount jailhouse religion," Chaplain George Koerber observed at the time. "But Nick is in no way the same person who came to this institution. He is a changed man."

The new behavior pattern led to a parole in 1975 after Nick had served three and a half years. The U.S. Justice Department maintained a deportation action against him, threatening to send him to Greece. Shortly after parole, the government called off this move and Nick was free.

In his new life Nick returned to Cleveland to work on the staff of the Teen Challenge ministry in drugs and alcohol. Nick often visited prisons and jails, talking like this:

"I used to walk around with a bulldog look on my face, acting like a tough dude. I was wearing a mask. The mask came off when I met God personally."

Romance also entered Nick's life. While in prison, he fell in love with Dottie Elliott, a kindergarten teacher with a sweet smile and a lovely singing voice. Dottie often came to prison on Sundays to sing at worship services.

They were married by Father Koerber several weeks before Nick's parole was processed. The chaplain thought of everything... he tied the knot and also brought chicken and a wedding cake to the reception following the ceremony at Plymouth, Ohio.

Little Nicole Pirovolos arrived a year later, the same day the legal papers were drawn for her father's involvement in his own prison ministry. The ministry's name is Inside Out.

Now Nick tells friends, "I'm thankful to God that I am not back in the hellhole I was in. I'm with my wife and daughter. But my heart is with those guys on the inside. They've been through enough hell.

"The bars keep telling those guys that they're no good. I visit prisons to let them know there is plenty good in them."

A difficult and ugly institutional word is "recidivism," which means that a con is given scant chance to make it on the outside and everyone in prison expects him to return.

Nick can't pronounce the word and he refuses to accept it.

"Nearly 75 percent of the guys I knew in prison are making it," he says firmly. "Making it with Christ. The ones that fail were wishy-washy with the Lord in prison. They are wishy-washy with the world, and it doesn't work."

Nick strides across denominational lines in his messages to inmates as well as clubs and churches.

"As an ex-con telling others about Jesus, I don't have any hangups," he says. "I hang everything on Jesus. My theology is uncomplicated. I uplift the simplicity of the cross.

"I tell the guys that I messed up my life long enough. I believe the Lord Jesus is the Maker of heaven and earth. He left the splendor of heaven for a humble birth and a shameful death. He died for my sins...Nick the Greek's sins.

"I believe that by asking Him to come in, as I did, He will direct anyone into a new life. It's a matter of trust. I believe the best teacher we have in life is God Himself through the Holy Spirit."

One might reason that this message is a little heavy to lay on the inmates, but the response refutes the idea.

Nick likes to tell the story of a friend named Jerry, who is making it as a parolee.

"We always called him Redbeard," he says. "Redbeard made a decision to follow Christ and he kept at it. On the outside he now manages an apartment building. Redbeard told me, 'Nick, you were the only guy in there that didn't shove Christianity down my throat.'"

Nick has a style and a sensitivity that dispels cynicism and distrust. He works through chaplains to arrange worship services with the men.

The format is constant. Nick leads singing himself, creating unity and togetherness with familar hymns and soul lyrics. Before the message, Nick asks inmates to speak openly of problems and frustrations.

"Nick, I'm worried about my wife and mother," a voice moans from the back of the room. "They're giving up on me."

"What are their names?"

"Alice is my wife and Virginia is my mother."

"Let's pray for them right now."

Everything else stops as Nick prays for a minute or two for specific needs. Other prayer requests are honored the same way - no delay, right then.

These are tender, sweet moments for someone from the outside. Clearly, this is the persistent and pointed prayer that Jesus urged on His listeners when He was here on earth.

Invariably Nick asks the inmates to be trophies for the Lord in prison.

"You have to let others see how wonderful it is to be a Christian," he adds. "Don't let Satan take away your joy."

Individual participation in the service by the men is a goal. Nick asks the inmates to tell why they are grateful to God in these circumstances.

"God saved my life by bringing me into this joint," says one.

"Thank God for Nick," declares another. "he knows the Word of God is needed within these walls."

An atmosphere is created to accept unusual happenings.

Nick tells the story of Artie Parks, whom he met when both were doing time.

"Artie goes into this music store with a gun," he says. "Before leaving with the money, he hits the store owner on the head with the gun. Artie accepts Christ in prison and the music store bugs him.

"From his cell he writes a letter to the store owner, apologizing for attacking him and stealing his money. Several months go by and then Artie gets a letter. The owner writes that he is a Christian. He says God forgives him and he forgives Artie."

Nick adds: "You should have seen those two when the owner visits the prison. They are like old pals. The best part is that Artie now has a job in the music store. Not just another employee. He is the boss' right-hand man."

It was inevitable in prison work that Nick would meet Charles Colson, the White House advisor imprisoned in the Watergate investigation. The two served as volunteer counselors in a weekend California prison crusade conducted by Bill Glass, onetime pro football cruncher.

"Colson is a humble man," says Nick. "He gives a powerhouse speech for the Lord. He tells the guys he cares for them. When I was inside, no big slicker ever came and told me he cared for me. Usually they come in and talk prison reform, without knowing anything about prisons."

The Bible is Nick's source book in asking inmates to be patient in waiting for parole hearings.

"Genesis is the first book in the Bible," he says, "and the story of Joseph is in Chapter 39. Joseph went to prison unjustly. When I got caught for armed robbery, I cursed God and man, and set fire to my cell. But Joseph did everything right, even in prison. He remembered God.

"Joseph spent 17 years in a rathole without seeing a parole board. That tells you something. God can show kindness to anyone in prison. When Joseph got out he became head man in Egypt."

Each week Nick and his small staff receive many letters and phone calls from inmates, their families and friends, revealing their hunger for God's power through prayer, the Word, and the hope Nick's ministry brings to them. Inside Out always answers the letters personally.

"Last Christmas my wife and I got a bundle of cards," he says. "The messages inside made us cry. It's a sacrifice for a guy to send a card like that. The card costs 40 to 50 cents, same as on the outside, and the stamp is 13 cents. These guys make 10 cents an hour or less.

"The messages tell us we are getting through to the men. They like the fellowship of our letters and newsletter. They are touched by what we say. One recent letter said, 'I can see Jesus in your eyes and smiles.' We are touched by what they do and how the Lord is turning the prisons inside out with His presence and love."

 

The above article was originally printed in Christian Life Magazine, September 1977. Nick Pirovolos has given reprint permission.