Dusty Burt remembers watching his mom and dad shoot up cocaine from an early age. He also recalls the beatings that followed. At only 10 years old, he begged God to end his life. “I locked myself in my room and shouted for God to kill me,” he says. “It was just unbearable to get off the school bus every day knowing what would happen next.”
He picked up his first felony stealing a four-wheeler at age sixteen. Soon after, he began using methamphetamines. “I always wanted to be part of something, and the only time I felt part of a group was when I was in complete rebellion,” he says. He dropped out of school early and began collecting felonies. While his friends were joining the military or going off to college, Dusty had no direction. “I remember sitting in my trailer, with nothing to eat, unable to hold down a job. All I wanted to do was get high or steal from people.”
John 10:10a says, “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy.” That same enemy woke Dusty each morning and directed his steps during the day. Dusty was thirty when he showed up in prison for charges ranging from kidnapping to aggravated robbery. “When I got there, I discovered I could be anyone I wanted to be. As long as I followed a basic set of rules, there really were no consequences.” As his fear of punishment diminished, Dusty found himself in and out of prison for the next 22 years. He decided his life was what he had always deserved and related to titles like convict, addict, thief, and loser.
Same Place, Different Person
One day, Dusty decided to drive down to a casino in Fort Smith, Arkansas. “I used my last US$33 in that casino and came out with US$8,000. Everyone knows you don’t give that kind of money to a junkie.” Dusty spent that night at the Flamingo Motel, a place he describes as “the classiest half-star rated joint in town.” Soon after he checked in, he shot the night’s casino winnings into his arm, closed his eyes, and settled into darkness while his body shut down.
Dusty woke with a paramedic hovering over him, defibrillator in hand. While he could not remember his name when prompted by EMTs, he would never forget what happened next. “Looking around the room, I saw a man standing in the doorway. He was not made like you and me; there was a glow about him. He looked at me with eyes like onyx stone and I heard Him speak, not with His mouth but with His spirit, ‘This is your last chance. You are not your own. You are bought at a price.’ Then He was gone.” For the first time in his life, Dusty was overcome with the knowledge he was separated from God.
Officers picked him up and walked him to a police car. This was a scene all too familiar to Dusty—the feeling of cuffs around his wrists and the view from the back seat of a cruiser had not bothered him in a long time. This ride was different. He thought about the words of the man he had seen in the doorway, and he felt his body shake.
Arriving at the prison, Dusty experienced a moment of reprieve as the familiar prisoner intake formalities had become a comfort to him. As he was led to his cell, he began to feel his old confidence again. The cell door opened, and he saw a man reading on the top bunk and another writing on the bottom bunk. “I immediately started to size them up, because there was no way I was sleeping on the floor.” Dusty took his shirt off to expose the gang affiliation tattooed on his side. One of his new cellmates saw the tattoo right away and said, “Oh, you’re affiliated… me too.” He stood to show Dusty a cross tattooed across the width of his entire back.
“I’m a Christian,” the man explained, “and so is that man,” he continued, nodding to the other cellmate.
Then he pointed back at Dusty’s side and said, “That has no dominion in here.” Dusty fell to the floor and began to cry. In fact, he continued crying for the next three days.
On the third day, a group of Gideons visited the prison. The suited men made their way through the blocks handing a Scripture to any man who would take one. Dusty walked up to one of the men and reached out to accept a Testament. The exchange was simple. Dusty walked back to his cell and began to consume his new reading material. “Something amazing happens when you open the Word of God—the author shows up and shows out,” he says. “He began to minister to me and tell me who I am to Him. Reading those words was like feeding a hunger I didn’t even know existed.”
“My Jesus is stunning, and His love is a reason to shout!” —Dusty
On October 28, 2012, Dusty fell to his knees and asked God to forgive his past and help him live an honorable life before Him. “Even after all I’ve done, the Bible says my Father has engraved my name into the palms of His hands.” (Isaiah 49:16)
Looking down at his own hands, Dusty smiles. He looks up with wet eyes, “Dusty Burt, written on my King’s hands. Man, if that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what will!” Dusty had always wanted to be part of something, but what he realized that day was God had chased him all over Arkansas to invite him to be part of His family. Still, God had even more planned for building Dusty’s family.
All the Right Connections
The world would still have to be convinced of Dusty’s change of heart, so he remained in prison for some time after accepting Christ. A wall separated the facility into male and female living quarters. While Dusty enrolled in Biblical training classes on his side of the wall, Tonya Hartwick had experienced her own redemption story after receiving a Testament distributed by Gideons.
“Most people in prison, all they want are letters from home. When I was handed that Bible, I had the best letter,” she says.
Like Dusty, Tonya read her love letter from God until all she knew to do was surrender to the author and ask Him to forgive her past. “I remember the place where it happened, that day when I got on my knees and asked Jesus to come into my heart. I had a peace that day I had never known before.”
After serving two and a half years, Tonya was released. She started faithfully attending Mt. Olive Baptist Church, were Dusty’s grandmother also worshipped. “Dusty and I knew each other from high school. We met again years later through the drug culture in town. In fact, I was his dealer for several years before we were both arrested.”
Dusty’s grandmother asked Tonya if she would write to Dusty in prison to encourage him, and Tonya agreed. When Dusty was released two years later, Tonya planned on remaining strictly a friend for Dusty. “It’s hard to adjust back to the world after prison, especially if you’re trying to live a completely different life with new friends and habits,” she says.
Tonya began by inviting Dusty to church—the same church from which Dusty had stolen US$4,000 to support a drug addiction. At first, he was too ashamed. “Just come and try,” she said, “The first Sunday is the worst.” Dusty showed up for church at Mt. Olive Baptist, where he was met with a few cautious handshakes at the door. However, he continued to attend faithfully. Today, Dusty is serving on the church’s leadership council and praises the Lord for extending His forgiveness to the hearts of those he wronged years ago.
“We had our own ministry as the feet of Satan. Now, we’re able to be the feet of Christ, and to serve Him in this ministry by sharing the Gospel.” —Tonya
Tonya also invited Dusty to attend a pastor’s banquet where she would be sharing her testimony. Dusty remembers looking around the room at all the men in suits and feeling out of place. “I will never be a Gideon,” he thought. “I can tell people about Jesus without wearing a tie.” He was right—anyone can share what Christ has done for them. However, what he still lacked was a mentor.
qualified for service
Gideon Bill Sivells attended Mt. Olive Baptist and took note of Dusty’s transformation. He began taking Dusty out to lunch. “It was great to have someone to pour all my doubts and fears into. He was the first person to tell me he wanted to see me succeed,” says Dusty. Eventually, Bill invited him to a prayer breakfast, which was easy for Dusty to accept. “I love prayer, and I love breakfast—of course I’ll go,” he said. During the course of the meal, the men asked Dusty to share his story. Then, they asked what he did for a living. They looked around at each other as if they were about to burst. “You’re qualified to be a Gideon, you know,” said Travis Acklin, president of the North Faulkner County Camp. Dusty thought about the word qualified. “I’d never been qualified for anything honorable in my whole life. So, I signed up.”
“Since joining, I’ve found The Gideons have a direction I can be a part of. Iron sharpens iron, and that’s why my life’s ‘board of directors’ is filled with Gideons. I have a Paul in my life – Bob Jones. Bob is the director of the prison ministry in the state of Arkansas, so we share a passion for inmates. He teaches me by example how to walk in the ways of the Lord.” According to Arkansas state law, Dusty’s record should hold him ineligible to participate in prison ministry of any kind. However, the Lord has opened doors for Dusty to do just that as a Gideon.
The first time Dusty returned to prison by his own free will, God used his witness to bring seven men to Himself. “My inmate number was 134728,” says Dusty. “But, thank God, I’ve traded in my inmate number. Today, I’m Gideon number 7982267, and I visit the men in jails and prisons I used to sit in myself. When you get to hold a man that you’ve done time with as he weeps before the King…life is just amazing.”
Dusty and Tonya were married in May 2017. The same day, Tonya’s Auxiliary application was sent off so she could serve alongside her husband. “I feel so blessed to be a part of a group of people all over the world who love the Lord the same way we do,” she says. “When you come from the places Dusty and I have, it’s amazing to be accepted and held accountable by men and women of the Lord.”
Recently Dusty shared his testimony at a Gideon event where he was able to meet Bill Freeman, the man who placed a Testament in his hand that day in prison. “When I saw him, I knew. I will never forget his eyes,” says Dusty. As Dusty shook his hand and thanked him, Bill’s face lit up. “He didn’t know that day who I was or what the Lord was doing in me. He reached out to a convict and God produced a miracle.” Bill Freeman is currently serving his 47th year as a Gideon and is part of the Fort Smith South Camp in Arkansas.
The excitement has not worn off for Dusty and Tonya. They continue to carry out their callings by serving in the North Faulkner County Camp. Tonya is studying Criminal Justice and Psychology through Colorado Christian University and will graduate this December to fulfill her calling as an addiction counselor. Dusty owns his own construction business, where he even gets to work with a few Gideons. They enjoy spending time pursuing their business while also ministering to one another and those around them during the workday. “God intertwined me with His family in every aspect of my life,” says Dusty. “When you’re given the opportunity to go to a church and speak, to love on the unlovable, or to pray for a brother, don’t pass it up. By being a Gideon, I get to do that every day.”