After our mothers burial our uncle took my brother my sister and me down to Belfast to spend a few days with a lovely Christian family. They had a beautiful home and we were looked after like royalty. I was not really sure why my uncle had taken us to them but on reflection it was probably to get us away from the house and our father. He was in no fit state to look after us and as a family unit he never did again.
Our time with this family was filled with a compassion and care, we were complete strangers to them and yet it seemed as if we had known them for a long time. They were very gentle and understanding towards us, I cannot remember feeling threatened or awkward around them, that was unusual for me. We all have different ways of dealing and coping with situations, I knew nothing then about defence or coping mechanisms.
Over time I had become very hard on the inside and had accumulated personality issues that I was oblivious to. My heart was filled with bitterness, anger, hatred, resentment and guilt. The environment that we live in has a massive impact on our personality and well being, this new environment opened my eyes to the possibility that you can have a happy family without shouting and violence.
Before we left that loving family to return home to Lurgan the mother of the family asked me to try and memorise a verse in the bible, it was Psalm 27:1. “The Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” At that precise moment in my life the verse did not mean very much to me but in the following years it would become very precious to me.
On returning to Lurgan our family was separated, my eleven year old brother and seven year old sister went to live with two of our aunts and I returned to our home at 26 Trasnaway. I was not really looking forward to returning, I could have continued living with my grandparents but for some reason I felt that I had to go home and try and help my dad.
It was on returning home that I found that there were some things about me that were different. I had a different attitude towards my dad I also discovered that I no longer wanted to harm Roman Catholics and the filth that would freely spew out of my mouth had miraculously stopped without me trying to stop it. Changes were taking place within me that I was not really responsible for.
In the early hours of the 25/2/1975 when I had asked Jesus to forgive me and to be my saviour even though I did not fully understand it I became a new creation. The bible term is that I was born again, I was now a new creation in Christ, again the bible puts it like this. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold all things have become new”. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Through time and teaching I began to understand more and more what that meant in my new life in Christ. My attitude, my desires, my actions and reactions were all undergoing change in one way or another. I had no connections with any church in Lurgan, none of my immediate family circle except my uncle in Belfast attended church, because of this and the fact my uncle had led me to the Lord I started attending his church, Templemore Hall just off the Newtonards Road .
The family that we had stayed with for a few days attended this church and it was lovely to see them each week and spend some time with them. I got the bus to Belfast every Sunday and attended Sunday school and both services. I think the last bus to Lurgan was at 10pm. Going down there was the highlight of my week. The people were so friendly, genuine and caring, a nurturing environment where you could grow in your faith, I loved it.
Home life had changed dramatically as well. The help my dad received in the hospital and the tragedy of mum’s sudden death had made an impact on his life. He had stopped drinking and there was also no one to fight with. When he was like this he was a loveable character. I have paused to think about the words I have just written, “Loveable character”. This is a very hard thing for me to say but I did not love my father very much.
Two wrongs never make a right but I cannot remember my dad cuddling me or holding me. I know that he never turned up at any of the cup finals that I had the good fortune to play in. He would occasionally take me hunting with him but other than that we spent no time together. On one occasion he came home with another shotgun and said that he had bought it for me, I was over the moon that I had my own gun. Unfortunately I never got to shoot the gun, he sold it a few weeks later because he had borrowed money of someone for alcohol and the man wanted his money back.
After the death of our mother I never went back to school and therefore I never completed any of my exams. When I say I never went back that is not strictly true. The school football team had reached the final of a prestigious schools cup and I had played as goalkeeper in every match. I almost missed one match because I had damaged one of my fingers and it was in a splint, I was using the splint as an excuse to get out of doing class work as I proclaimed I could not hold a pen because of the splint.
On this occasion the team coach sent someone to the class to ask the teacher to let me go early because our match was some distance away, she gave me permission to go and as I was about to exit the door she stopped me and asked me what position I played on the team, I thought she was just showing an interest but she was a lot smarter than I gave her credit for. I answered proudly “Goalkeeper” here reply was “Come back and sit down”. The boy who was sent to get me had the same surprising look on his face as I had. I asked the teacher what was wrong and she said that if I could not do class work because of the splint on my finger then it would be impossible for me to catch a ball.
I felt sick, football was one of the few things that I was any good at and now this person was taking that away from me. The other boy went and told the coach what had happened and he very quickly was on the scene. Some words and hand gestures were exchanged between him and my teacher and I was called forward. He had struck a deal, if I agreed to stop using the splint on my finger as an excuse not to write in class she would let me go. Phew, I would have contemplated giving her the splint with my finger in it just to get playing. Football was my life.
So here I am, a school drop out with the football coach at my door asking me to come back to play football. I went back only to play football; we reached the final of the cup and got beat 1-0 to a penalty kick, devastating. I would like to sincerely thank that coach for his kindness to me after my mother’s death. The team had arranged a trip to England to watch Everton and Ipswich play at Goodison Park. He came round to my house and told me that because of the group booking there was a free place and he wanted me to have it. A dream was fulfilled; I had always wanted to go to a big game in England.
I am not sure exactly how many months I had been attending the church in Belfast when I met someone who was to have a tremendous impact on my life, thirty nine years later and I still look up to them. The encounter goes like this.
A knock comes to the door, the door is opened and two people meet for the first time.
From the inside a sixteen year old young man looks out at a small man dressed in a suit wearing a shirt with a round white collar. The stranger on the step extends his hand and introduces himself to the curious young man. The man is the Pastor of the local Lurgan church of the Nazarene his name is the Rev Raymond Spence. The young man is in the house on his own playing snooker by himself. The Pastor invites the young man to his church stating that there are a good number of young people who meet on a Friday night at the youth club in the church.
The Pastor knows nothing about the young man on the door step, he does not know that a few months earlier the young mans mother took her own life in this house. He does not know that the young mans father is an alcoholic and that his younger brother and sister age eleven and seven don't live with him any more but are cared for by his two aunts. The Pastor does not know that the young man standing before him has dropped out of school without completing his final exams and is battling with anger, confusion and bitterness.
The Pastor is oblivious of the heartache and often misery that this young man experienced in this home. He knows nothing of the domestic violence and the devastating effects that alcohol has had in this home. He does not know that this young man had left home to live with his grandparents because he could take no more of the fighting and arguing that took place every week. The friendly Pastor does not know the influence that he would have in this young mans life in the futre and what would eventually become of him.
The friendly Pastor asks the young man if he would like to play him a game of snooker and he is invited into his home. The Pastor does not realise how fortunate he is to be invited in as the young man is ashamed of the rundown condition of the home. The Lino on the floor is worn and the carpet in the middle of the floor has a large hole in it but the snooker table helps to make it less visible. The wallpaper and ceiling are a yellow brown colour, stained from years of tobacco smoke. The glass front on the fire is broken because his drunken father fell into it and badly cut and burnt his hand.
The Pastor slowly gains the trust of the young man during their game of snooker, both players have a competitive personality and the game is taken seriously. The Pastor gently probes the young man for more information about himself. He learns that the young man is football mad and that training twice a week with the local football club and playing for one of their teams is what he really lives for. The young man has not yet told the Pastor that he has had an encounter with God, that would come later.