David Poole tried to breathe, but the oxygen in his tank had run out. Almost 80 feet below the ocean surface in Cozumel, Mexico, the soft-spoken executive panicked.
"It was like trying to suck air out of a plate-glass window," David remembers. "The best thing I could think of to do was to make a deal with God. I probably thought I was praying, but I was really just trying to close a deal. I said, 'You let me out of this and I really will mean it when I go to church.'"
Kicking toward the surface as hard as he could, David flashed back to scenes from his life. Even in death's grasp, he thought of his money.
"I remembered how I hadn't signed the papers about my new estate planning, and thought, Now all that money will go to the government."
Convinced he was about to die, David gave up, thinking, God, I'm Yours; take me.
And then he popped to the surface.
For months, the wealthy businessman experienced nightmares about nearly drowning. He also wondered about a recurring question: What would have happened to me if I had not survived?
Then he talked to a fellow executive and golfing buddy, Tommy Wellons.
"Tommy had a peace about him," David remembers, "and he handled stress differently than other people."
Tommy had accepted Christ through Priority Associates.
Tommy invited David to come to an Priority Associates outreach luncheon. There, David heard about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and he prayed and accepted Christ into his life.
David's life changed after he accepted Christ, and now he lives out his faith, influencing his executive peers and people around the world. The father of 3 frequently speaks at Priority Associates dinner parties in several different cities.
At the David C. Poole Company Inc., a textile business in Greenville, S.C., David speaks to his own team. He calls a meeting after returning from a business trip to Mexico, allowing his son Bynum to lead the debrief, and the conversation blurs with details about types of fabrics, colors, names of buyers and suppliers.
But early the next morning, the 64-year-old wakes up for the Priority Associates men's Bible study at 6:30 a.m. Over a hundred CEOs, presidents, and other businessmen meet at The City Club, a large bar room with chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling mirrors along one wall.
"I saw a sign in a CEO's office," the introductory speaker begins, "that said 'An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.'"
He relates this quote to the Christian life, and emphasizes being loyal and obedient to God. Later he tells the men to open their Bibles to 2 Samuel.
"It's somewhere between Genesis and Psalms, sort of toward the beginning," he says.
The atmosphere makes the executives comfortable enough to ask questions, which is especially important for men who typically know all the answers. In smaller "table groups," the men study different topics, share prayer requests, and encourage one another to invite friends.
Several years ago, David brought Charlie Houser, a member of the board of directors for a bank in Greenville. The night before the Bible study, David commented to the board members that he had to get up early.
"Where are you going?" Charlie asked. "Hunting, fishing?"
"No," David replied, "I'm going to a Bible study. You should come with me."
Charlie agreed to come, accepted Christ shortly after, and, just like David, he has influenced many others. The heart of Priority Associates lies in reaching people who can have an effect on their peers and followers.
"We target people who are influencers," says David Williams, Priority Associates national director. "We do not seek socioeconomic status, but instead we want to reach leaders and entrepreneurs."
David Poole and his wife, Sherry, hosted an outreach dinner at their new 3-story house, reminiscent of an old French country home. In the backyard by the pond and the pool, they set up 2 big tents and cooked wild game birds. But before Charlie got up to speak, it began pouring rain. The tents kept everyone's heads dry, but their feet were too muddy to move inside.
"I was literally standing in 4 inches of water when I got up to give my testimony," Charlie remembers. "I thought I was going to get electrocuted and go to heaven right there," he laughs.
Charlie described how he used to have everything -- success, family, friends, a wealthy lifestyle -- but he knew something was wrong with his life.
"I was an empty blue suit," Charlie recalls. "I looked good on the outside, but on the inside I was in turmoil."
When David invited him to the Bible study, he found what he was looking for.
Despite the adverse weather conditions, the men all listened attentively as Charlie explained how God had worked in his life, and many of them filled out comment cards at the end, indicating either they had accepted Christ or wanted more information.
"A lot of executives are the same as I was," Charlie says. "They are so busy being successful and getting ahead that they bury themselves in their careers."
David agrees. Speaking at an outreach luncheon, the Wharton Business School MBA explains about his life before the scuba accident:
"My career was my top priority, even before my family. I became more financially successful than I dreamed. I kept setting and reaching one financial goal after another, but I became a poor husband and a part-time father. And my marriage ended in a divorce.
"I accumulated all the things I thought I needed for happiness. I had big boats, an apartment in New York, vacation retreats, expensive cars. I kept setting higher and higher goals, but the thrill of achievement began to disappear."
David's words are laced with regret, and his contrition is not hidden by his deep, calm Southern accent: "On the outside I looked happy and successful, and everybody thought I had it all together, but I was really cynical, frustrated, and depressed frequently."
David relives his race to the water's surface in Cozumel, and then tells the men how they, too, can have a personal relationship with Christ.
His passion for the gospel continues away from Greenville too. In the summer of 1998, he took his family on vacation to Kenya for a safari. He brought several evangelistic booklets with him, but they were gone by the first day. He met several local Christians, and one of them asked David to send him a Bible.
When David got home, he mailed 3 Bibles. From those Bibles, 3 new churches were formed, one around each Bible. And David continues to maintain a partnership with Campus Crusade's ministry there, financially providing for several of the church leaders to get more spiritual training.
"David turned what was purely a family vacation into a great opportunity to share [the gospel]," says Tom Preston, former director of Priority Associates and one of David's closest friends.
David shrugs off any praise he receives, simply commenting, "God uses you the most when you least expect it."