The cell door slammed, shutting out all my expectations for the future. Having lived in care of the local authority and serving two months in a detention centre I was now about to do a stretch in borstal. The first three weeks of my sentence began in H.M.P. Winson Green. I was in the big house. Looking up at the bars, which fortified the window of my cell, I began to ask myself some searching questions. 'Will I ever get out of this place?' Could I possibly settle down, or would it always be like this?' The answers to my questions resounded in the negative. Lying on my bed in solitary confinement, I recalled how a neighbour once branded me as 'the scum of the earth'. I also pictured the faces of those who told me, 'you will never learn'. 'You are going to be in and out of prison for the rest of your life.' I conceded that my critics were right. I was a juvenile delinquent without any prospects.
THE BUTLINS MYTH
Like most, I believed any correction centre with sports facilities, colour television and similar privileges characterized a holiday camp. My naive perception was about to be refined. In my adolescence I was detained at seven institutions. Three of them were open, the others were closed. In each of these establishments I encountered some form of upheaval. I think of those inmates who without knowing, consumed food and drink laced with human spit. I recall an incident when prison officers set up some detainees. They were systematically released out of their cells and beaten up in the showers by other inmates. I happened to be present on a remand wing when self-abusers slashed their wrists and attempted suicide. These people were otherwise known as 'crack-ups'. On the inside I discovered that ethnic abuse and violence was always prevalent. Bullying amongst inmates was the norm. One prisoner was overpowered and held down in his cell. His attackers then proceeded to scrub his shins to the bone, with a scrubbing brush. I came to the conclusion that doing time was no vacation. Borstal was the climax of my institutional life. Following my release the numbers 584114 and 535057 have since been tattooed on my mind. All offending inmates are given numbers for administrative purposes. I have not been able to forget my numerical identity.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Back out on Civi Street, I was determined to go straight. Despite the untimely death of my father, I began to adjust and find a place in the world. Before my eighteenth birthday I successfully applied for a job with a turf accountant. Of course I lied to get it. I was only seventeen at the time, I pretended to be eighteen. Furthermore, I willfully omitted to inform my employer about my previous convictions. By doing this I got the job as a bookies board marker. My responsibility was to chalk up the results from the horse and dog races. From here on in I took a personal interest in the racing business. I began to have a little flutter. Eventually gambling got a foothold in my life. My week’s wages was often lost in a day’s betting. In addition to my gambling problem, the area manager found out about my past record. Consequently, I was asked to leave. I was given four weeks notice and promised a good reference.
GIZ A JOB
About the same time I received notification from the betting office, something happened which I thought was unusual. My mother, ignorant of the situation, came home and told me it was time I got a real job. Unexpectedly she proceeded to say that she had arranged an interview on my behalf. I was to apply for the post of a draughtsman with a local company. I laughed at such a stupid notion. I reminded her that I was a semi-literate, ex-con with no trade or formal qualifications. At this my mother threatened me strongly and promised if I did not make an effort I would be kicked out of the house. I realized the only way I could keep the peace was to attend this interview. However, I was puzzled. How did a little sixty three-year-old pensioner, find favour with the boss of this company? How did my mother manage to walk into this factory and create this job opportunity? Little did I know, a higher power had been at work in my circumstances.
I decided to go for the interview that following week. Walking into the reception area the secretary declared. 'If you've come for a job you've missed the boat.' I was relieved. I would not have to step into the shoes of a draughtsman. I knew they would not fit. Just then I was introduced to the works manager. He reluctantly invited me into his office. He told me that he was not expecting me. But he admitted talking to a 'little old lady' asking about a job for her son. The next ten minutes ticked away in silence. I watched with embarrassment as the manager gazed aimlessly through his window. He thoughtfully bit his nails. He thrust his hands behind his back and strutted around his office. I knew he was hesitating about making a decision. The silence broke when he said, 'I'll give you a job as a plater's mate.' I did not know what a plater's mate was supposed to do. But one thing was for sure, I had fallen on my feet by getting a 'real job'.
GOOD TO WORSE
The serendipity into the world on constructional engineering was a Godsend. By now I had a steady girlfriend, independence, and I was working for a living. All was going well until I sustained an injury to my back. This impaired my ability to do manual labour. Subsequently I began to take a lot of time off work. I started to become undisciplined. My gambling addiction intensified. I started to take drugs on a regular basis and supply them to my friends. The parent-son relationship between my mother and me was strained. I was asked to leave the house. I did so. The council offered me a bed-sitter flat. It did not have a proper heating system. I was in need. I accepted the poor accommodation. My life was falling apart once more. Long absences from work, heavy bouts of drinking, compulsive gambling and regular drug taking. I was a thousand and hundreds of pounds in debt. My council landlords were taking me to court because of my extreme rent arrears. This was a bad omen. The last time I appeared in court was for an affray. I thought my court room drama had finished. I was mistaken. Old habits die-hard. I was now an irresponsible adult with no prospects.
HANGING ON IN THERE
Awaiting a second operation on my spine I periodically put in some attendance at work. I feared if I got the sack, happiness would be unachievable. No one would employ a twenty five-year-old reprobate, with a criminal record, suffering from ill health. I was under pressure, barely coping. I no longer had the support of my social workers or the persuasive influence of a probation officer. I was struggling alone in this mess convinced no one could help.
SPEAKING MY MIND
It was one of those rare occasions. Much to everyone's surprise I turned up for work on a Monday morning. When break time came around, I sat down in the welding pen drinking a cup of tea talking to a colleague. His name was Roy. I noticed that he took a book out of his locker. Being inquisitive I asked him what he was reading. Roy told me that he was preparing a Sunday school lesson. He was a Christian. I was indignant. I jumped down from the metal bench on which I was sitting, I started to point my finger at Roy, saying, 'I know there's a God, you don't have to tell me.' I also admitted to offending God. On this confession my comments became a little reverent. I said to Roy, 'If I had a wish right now, guess what it would be?' He interrogated and asked, 'What would your wish be?' I explained that, 'I wanted God to take away every bad thing I had done, compress it into a ball and throw it away for ever.' I carried on to say that I was confused about the many religions of the world. 'I wished I could find the true God.' After I had made these remarks, the hooter sounded the workforce back to its duty. Break time was over, Roy and I went back to work. I did not think or ponder on what I had said. It was just like any other conversation I had that day.
I awoke early the next morning. Opening my eyes I could see the sunshine blistering its beams through my bedside window. The strength of its rays caused me to squint. The light was unusually bright. I had never seen the sun shine like this before. Arousing myself out of bed, I went into the bathroom, washed and got dressed. That morning I was very emotional. I suddenly burst into tears. I began to weep like I had never wept before. These were strange tears. Along with these tears, the voice of my own mind uttered a bizarre statement, 'Jesus Christ is who He says He is. You must become a Christian.' This experience was so overwhelming I needed to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. Walking along the streets I saw clouds hovering in the blue sky. They grabbed my attention immediately. The clouds appeared to be so low I could have raised my hand and touched them. I had never experienced joyful feelings like these before. I now saw life in 3D for the first time. Describing the event, with the words of John Wesley, 'My heart was strangely warmed. Theologians identify the experience as 'regeneration'. Ridiculers mock and call it, 'seeing the light'. Secular minded people understand it as a 'conversion'. Jesus described it to Nicodemus as being 'born again'. John 3:3,7.In that unforgettable month of May 1985, I cried like a baby and was born into another world. My mother did not get me that plater's job after all. Divine providence led me to that factory. It was there on an industrial shop floor, the Holy Spirit brought me to repentance and saved my soul from hell.
A couple of days after my conversion, I summoned up the courage to go and visit a nearby chapel. As an unchurched believer, I gate crashed the prayer meeting. I asked the minister to make me into a born again Christian exactly like Cliff Richard. The singer at that time was the only born again Christian I could relate to. I am glad that Cliff and the press did not keep his belief a secret. The minister of the chapel obliged and granted my request. He prayed with me. I now considered myself to be an official Christian.
My change of heart went beyond an experience. It imparted a difference. The fruits of my being 'born again' soon became evident. I was affected in every way. My girlfriend stated that I was not the same Kevin she knew. She gave me an ultimatum. God or her. I was compelled to choose God. For the first time in my life I was backing an authentic certainty. I placed the reins of my destiny into the hands of the rider of a white horse, who is called faithful and true. Revelation 19:11. This divine jockey Jesus Christ has never failed me yet. Instead the dynamic of my conversion has changed the quality of my life.
For example, I was able to stop smoking instantly. I was pleased about this. I had tried to stop smoking on a number of occasions before. Now I was able to kick the habit without making any effort. The craving for nicotine has gone. Furthermore I quit taking drugs. I told my friends that I would no longer be supplying them with illegal substances. My friends laughed. They suggested I was on a bad trip and my religious experience was just a phase. This was 13 years ago, in 1985. They were wrong. I have not used drugs since.
In a television interview I was asked if my conversion experience may have possibly been drug induced. I answered the question by explaining that my wife became a Christian at fourteen. She had a conversion experience, but she has never taken an illegal substance. The church I pastor has about eighty members. The majority of which have never taken drugs, but they too have had a life changing experience with Jesus Christ. Some drug takers have become Christians. But many Christians have never been drug takers. It has also been suggested that my experience may have been a nervous breakdown, however someone who has a nervous breakdown is unable to cope with life. My conversion to Christ produced the opposite effect. Since my conversion I have been able to excel in life. I have gained the capacity to cooperate with others and sustain loving relationships. Furthermore I now have a disciplined intelligence. Before I became a Christian I had not read a book, I was virtually unlettered. But now I read widely and have a personal library of one thousand books. I have written articles for Challenge newspaper and Joy magazine. My conversion to Christ has also given me a respect for morality and equipped me with leadership skills that I did not have before. But most of all, since turning to faith in Christ I have gained a real sense of the meaning of life. It is true to say that I am enthusiastic about my faith, but that enthusiasm comes from a sound mind.
My parental relationship with my mother has long been reconciled. I was with her when she died peacefully aged 82. Months before her death mom prayed the sinner’s prayer with me and asked Jesus to be her saviour too. One birthday she gave me the money to purchase the complete works of the puritan writer John Owen. She wrote an inscription in volume one which says, ‘A present with joy and love to Kevin in appreciation of study etc which has been extremely hard work to the lad. From his loving and surprised, thankful mom. God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Mom.'
Furthermore I have experienced a redemption lift in my domestic circumstances. By the grace of God, I have been able to pay off all of my rent arrears. I do not gamble anymore, not even on the lottery! Consequently, I have the financial freedom to buy my own house.
The house is a small centrally heated three-bedroom semi. It is fully carpeted with a utility room, a garden and a garage. It excels my former accommodation. I am grateful for God's provision I am also married, my wife is named Colleen, I love her very much. We have two sons, Joseph and Nathan. God has been true to His word, 'He sets the lonely in families'. Psalms 68:6.
As a teenager I neglected formal education. I am pleased to say God has restored some of the school years, which the locusts have eaten. I was privileged to study at the Birmingham Bible Institute in 1988-1990. I obtained a certificate in theology and a GCSE in English. Modest qualifications I know, but at that time, a personal best.
Now I no longer wonder through life, I am conscious that I'm on an exciting journey. In my years of full time Christian ministry I have endured some unpleasant moments and severe trials. But in the midst of difficulties, God's hand of encouragement lifts me safely over the hurdles. I wish I had become a Christian sooner, but even this regret is compensated. Jesus said, 'There are those who are last who will be first.' Luke 13:30. This is a blessed principle. The dying thief on the cross was a no-hopper. He was making his last will and testament. But with Christ he came through to repentance, won forgiveness and picked up the prize of eternal life. Jesus Christ has given me peace for the past, grace for the present and hope for the future. He can do the same for you.
Kevin Coley (Revised on 16th April 1999)
Dudley Christian Fellowship, Salop Street, Dudley, West Midlands England Tel: 01384 239222 Or Tel 0961 801418 e-mail [email protected]
THREE STEPS TO BECOMING A CHRISTIAN
1. Recognise that you are a sinner and that there is nothing that you can do about it. 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (ROM 3:23, RSV) Jesus Christ is the standard that God has set for each one of us to attain. Turning over a new leaf will not work.
2. Turn from your sin and turn to Jesus Christ. 'He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. His wounds have healed you.' (1 Peter 2:24, RSV) God only requires from you the honesty to admit that you are morally and spiritually a failure. You can come to Christ just as you are.
3. Commit yourself. 'Jesus Christ, I believe and trust you, I believe you did for me, I give you all my sin and guilt. Thank you for forgiving me, I open myself to you. Come in now as my King and Saviour, and take charge of my life. Thank you, Amen.' And finally, if you have found Christ don't keep it a secret, go and tell somebody.