At age 14, Paul was convicted for robbery and assault. At 15, he was taking crack cocaine, and at the age of 18 he was living on one of the worst council estates in London.
Although Paul’s parents were highly creative – his father was a violinist and his mother an artist – Paul recalls that their creativity also resulted in extreme tension and familial dysfunction.
‘Growing up, there was a lot of violence. My mother is an alcoholic. When she is sober, she is a lovely and wonderful woman, but when she drinks she becomes nasty and violent. If my parents weren’t fighting with each other, then the violence was directed towards my sisters and myself.’
Paul’s parents divorced during the recession of the 80s, which resulted in the family’s home being repossessed and hostels becoming their new living space.
‘My father was absent during that time, so when my Mum used to drink, there was no one to stop her from hitting us. There were a few occasions when I was hospitalised as a child [as a result of being beaten].’
Convicted for robbery and assault at age 14, truancy and drugs signalled the end of Paul’s academic career. However, when work became available through his neighbour, a builder, it was a lifeline that he grabbed hold of. ‘I used to get £20 a day, and that was £100 a week. Yet, by Friday I would blow it all, and by Monday I’d be broke!’
In 2007, having progressed from labourer to bricklayer and finally entrepreneur, Paul had established his own construction company. However, throughout that period he was a ‘functioning addict’, unable to break the cycle of earning and burning money on drugs.
‘By this point, I was living in one of the worst council estates in London. [It had] over 6,000 people, with the majority [of the inhabitants] on benefits, [while the estate had] one of the worst crime rates in the city.’
Living in a hotbed for crack cocaine, Paul’s drug addiction rapidly increased, destroying his business and ruining his relationships. Desperately in need of a turning point, a friend’s invitation to work on a construction project was, quite literally, the job of a lifetime.
Leaving London on a stolen tank of diesel, with no money, Paul headed to the north of England, where his friend was on holiday with his church.
‘As I drove into this place, I saw a huge tent with some smaller white tents beside it. I felt a huge sense of dread – I thought I was entering this crazy place full of Christians and I needed to get out of there as quickly as possible.’
Unable to sign the contract, as the printers on site weren’t working, Paul agreed to spend the night and finalise work in the morning. However, that evening the sound of drums hailed Paul’s first experience of God, and the opportunity to find freedom.
‘I followed the sound and I walked into this tent, this circus, and it was full of Christians! About 4,500 people! As I stood at the back of the tent, reading the signs on the big screen, [there were] words about chains being broken and [promises] that I could be set free.’
As Vicar of HTB, Nicky Gumbel, shared the testimony of a prison inmate who had done Alpha and had been freed from major drug addiction, Paul found himself truly praying for the first time, asking God to come into his life and help him.
‘It was the first time I’d heard something like this, so I prayed – I opened my heart and said, “Lord, if you can do it for that guy, can you do it for me, can you come into my life?”’
Moments later, Nicky had a word that someone was suffering from addiction, and that the Holy Spirit wanted to free him. Battling within himself, Paul eventually went forward for prayer. As the weekend progressed, he was baptised and gave a testimony about his first encounter with God. Returning to London, Paul recalls spending three months clean from drugs, with no withdrawal symptoms, as he got plugged into Alpha and The Recovery Course run by the William Wilberforce Trust. ‘[When I returned
to London] I had already accepted Jesus into my life, but Alpha helped me fit the pieces together. It enhanced and added on to what
I had experienced during that weekend. My group leader for Alpha was so patient with me. He didn’t judge me at all. For me, Alpha was an essential part of my journey to faith – it allowed me to witness how God works.’
Yet, with his business improving and relationships beginning to heal, church slowly became less of a priority for Paul and drug use started again.
‘It was worse than before I [attended the church holiday]. I started robbing drug dealers, getting involved in crime, bank frauds. I couldn’t believe how it got so out of control. I felt like I’d let everyone down, the church, myself, my family. I went back [to HTB] and had a meeting with some people. It took a lot of courage and guilt and shame to go back. I still felt lonely in my life, but I had also experienced something no drug trip had ever given me before. Love. It was an incredible high. ’
The concept of God as a loving and forgiving father is one that Paul finds hard to put into words.
‘I had always seen God as someone far away from me, but experiencing God as a father allowed me to [reconceptualise] family relations, to really understand parental love. It was through Alpha that I discovered that awesome love. The first time I went [to Alpha], I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it was a big deal for the church. When I finally went along, it was such a surprise. It felt like a safe place for me, especially considering my background. I could hardly be at school,
let alone complete a course before Alpha. I actually ended up doing it twice!’
Describing his journey to faith as a restoration project, Paul is quick to emphasise that ‘temptations are always there. Of course they are. Except now I have new responsibilities.
I know that I am loved, I know that God wants to restore me. I’m married now and have a duty to my family. So, when I’m tempted, I pray. I know drug use isn’t a place I want to go back to’.
Discovering faith, accepting love and being open to change are certainly daunting things, but, as Paul says, they’re all part of the journey to restoration.
‘Faith is a journey. It started with real prayer and it takes time, you know. It doesn’t just happen overnight; it’s a process.’
Since becoming a Christian and doing Alpha, Paul has not only had the privilege of meeting his wife (they are currently expecting their first child), but he has also seen God work in his previously dysfunctional family.
‘All of my sisters have done Alpha and my mum’s starting to go to church and pray. She’s going gently, she’s a cynic and finds it hard, but the fact that she’s praying is amazing.’
Paul has also re-established a relationship with his father. ‘He’s terminally ill, but I see him at least three times a week. I’m witnessing restoration and that’s exciting. I witness to the people I work with, the people who are in the same situation I was in a few years ago, and they can see the change in my life. They can see God move in me and I tell them, he can do the same for you too.’
Words by Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan
Photography by Beetle Rhind