After my parents split up I started stealing, I think I wanted someone to take notice of the pain that I was in, but because my dad was a policeman it just added to the beatings. At 15 I was in a detention centre which was meant to be a ‘short, sharp, shock’ but it was there that my anger continued to grow and I was always getting into fights.
I left school at this same age and the only qualification I had was stealing, so that is what I did. Since I had no love in my life I took the painkillers to go along with that, drinking and drugs anything I could find to kill the pain within. At 19 I was in prison again and the way I dealt with all of the anger that was within me was by lashing out and fighting. I was put on 24 hour solitary confinement and it was during this time that I considered taking God’s greatest gift, my own life. But God must have been there because I did not take my own life, but I came out of the prison more bitter and violent than ever.
I thought what I want from this world, I have to take because no one gives you anything. I started working as a bouncer around the East-End and West-End clubs in London; I thought I liked fighting so I might as well get paid for it. It was there that I met some of the guys who ran most of the organised crime in London, so I started working for them. Not long after this, I stopped working for them and I began to work with them. I lived the classic gangster lifestyle with plenty of money, drugs and women. I had a penthouse flat in St. John’s Wood, a 7 series BMW, Sport Mercedes Convertible and I couldn’t spend the money I got fast enough because from the protection rackets and drug dealing cash kept pouring in. My designer leather Jacket had a sewn in inside pocket so I could have a machete with me for when I went to collect debts and punish those who failed to pay.
I truly believed what the world told me was true, that having all of the possessions, relationships and drugs would make me happy, but I felt sick inside because this life was slowly destroying me. Nothing satisfied me, nothing fulfilled me. At the same time, I was trying to destroy my conscience because with the people I was involved in the more vicious and brutal you could be the more respect you got and I wanted that respect. I wanted people to walk into a club and when people saw me they would know who I was and what I was involved in.
One night I was working at one of the clubs we ran in the West-End and I hit this guy with my knuckleduster, but when I hit him he fell straight back and smashed his head on the curb. I could see blood everywhere and people around started screaming, so I left the scene and I remember being in my car on the way home thinking, ‘I could get ten years for this.’ Slowly it came to me that I might have just killed someone and I don’t even care. I used to care I used to want to make a difference but here I was just taking and destroying everyone around me. The only person I cared about was myself and I didn’t think that would ever change.
I came home and I heard a voice speaking to me in my heart, it is a voice we all know, our conscience, God within us. Up to his point, I felt God was just a nice little story to keep us from being bad, but now I was faced with the fact that God was real and it didn’t matter what I thought.
Though I was never aware of God’s love or presence in my life up to this point, in one moment I felt Him withdraw Himself from me. People say that separation from God is hell, well if that was hell I pray that no one ever goes there because it was the most terrifying experience in my life. I had people put guns to my head, I had been stabbed but this was terrifying because I was fully aware of the choices I had made. I cried out to God for another chance not because I was sorry, but because I did not want to stay in the desolation I was experiencing. Right then I felt lifted up, I walked out of my flat and said the first prayer I had ever said in my life. I said, ‘Up to now all I have done is taken from you God, now I want to give.’ As I said that prayer that emptiness within my heart which the drugs, power and relationships could not satisfy was filled with the love of God. I could not believe God could love someone like me with all the terrible things I had done, but He kept showing me that He loved me and accepted me. All throughout my life I had felt useless and it didn’t matter if I lived or died, but God showed me that it did matter because He loved me and created me.
The only person I knew who had a faith was my mom, I didn’t see a lot of her in those days, but I went round to her and told her what had happened. She told me she had prayed for me every day of my life, but two weeks before this she had prayed to let Jesus take me. If that meant let me die then to let me die, just don’t let me hurt myself or anyone else anymore. I know how much my mom loves me and for her to pray that prayer must have broke her heart but she could see the monster I was becoming; I will never forget the tears rolling down her face as I told her how I had found God.
Those tears probably washed away all the pain and misery I had caused her in her life. My step-dad gave me my first Bible, I had never had one before and one of the first stories I read in it was the Prodigal Son. How a father gave his two sons his whole livelihood and property and one of them went and squandered all his Father’s money on a life of sin and debauchery. After he spent it all and because he was starving, he thought to himself. ‘How many of my father’s servants have all they want to eat and more and here I am starving for food.’ He decides to go back to his father and to ask him to take him into his home as a slave. But as he is walking to his Father’s house, his Father is out searching for him and when he sees him he runs up to embrace him, placing a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, clothing him with the finest cloak and sets a feast for him and his friends. He would always be His son and came back to the family where he was always loved, even after years in the wilderness.
He was there I saw in that story how God was always out looking for me and He never tired of searching or trying to fix my heart which had been broken by life. Since I had never gone to church I started looking for a place to meet God and I met an old priest who told me about a retreat. Now the only retreats I knew about involved lying on a beach, a Bacardi Breezer, joint and a nice bird so I said, “I’d love to come.” When I got there it wasn’t like I had imagined but I saw about 200 young people who had a joy I had never seen before. Some of them came up and hugged me, well I don’t know if you know any ex-gangster’s, but we’re not into all that hugging business, I mean for girls it was fine but the guys please, you don’t hug other men around our way, you’d get slapped.
It was then that I heard a talk and it was called ‘Give me your wounded heart’ and as I heard this priest speaking how every sin we commit is like a wound on our heart I was looking at a crucifix and for the first time I knew why Jesus died on that cross, because the darkest most terrible sins I had ever committed in my life he gladly carried in His heart to that crucifixion. And I felt an incredible sorrow for what I had done, but more than that sorrow was this incredible joy, I felt Jesus saying to me ‘John I love you so much I would go through this all again just for you. I started crying, I cried for the first time since I was ten because I couldn’t believe that anyone could love me so much as to die for me in that agony. I walked out of that talk and said a prayer to Mary the mother of Jesus, and I just said ‘What is it your Son wants me to do?’ I felt a whisper in my heart, go to confession. I had never been to confession before and I was 27 and I know I had committed every sin there was possible to commit and I was afraid. But Mary gave me the courage. And as I was confessing all of those most terrible sins, the priest was crying because he was Jesus to me. He was showing me the mercy of God, which I could feel in my heart. When I received absolution I knew it was Jesus forgiving me and setting me free. All my sins had been tipped out at the foot of the cross and I was alive again, I could feel the wind on my face, I could hear the birds singing. My sins had killed me but confession had brought me back to life.
Along with meeting Jesus through confession I received Him into my heart during the mass at that same retreat. When I went forward and received Holy Communion, every good feeling I had ever had in my life, including how I felt when I walked out of that flat, including how I felt after confession, was magnified a million times. My heart had been opened in confession to feel and know His presence in the Eucharist and it fulfilled my heart completely.
When I left that retreat I wanted to help others so I began working on Kingsmeade Estate in London trying to help young kids stay away from the life of crime and pain that I had chosen. A few years later, I went to the Bronx and it was there that I met Mother Teresa, she taught me how to love again, to love myself and others. She inspired me to give and since then I have been sharing my story in schools, parishes and prisons around the U.K. and Ireland. In 2007, at World Youth Day in Sydney I had the privilege to speak to more than half a million young people and the greatest gift in my life is to share with them that there is a God who loves them, who cherishes them and rejoices in them. Since that talk in Sydney my ministry has become more and more international. I have given retreats, talks and seminars in New Zealand, Australia, America (New York, Florida, Chicago, Phoenix and Los Angeles) Germany, Holland, Hong Kong and all across the world. The other year I went to Liberia to speak to former children soldiers about forgiveness. Some of these boys had been forced to commit atrocities and were forced into combat as young as 11 years old in the bloody civil war that raged in Liberia for over a decade. It was a honour and a privilege to be amongst them and see the incredible resilience they had to try and choose good in a life which has been so shrouded in darkness.
For the past 17 years I have worked full-time to bring hope to others and show them that if God can love someone like me he can love anyone. May God bless you in His deep love