“Jesus Gave Me What Boozing and Brawling Couldn’t: My journey from the criminal underworld to the foot of the cross” by Allen Langham, author of Taming of a Villain: A Message of Hope (2019, Lion Hudson). This article was published in Christianity Today, June 2019 issue, pages 79-80 (www.christianitytoday.com)
Six years ago—lost, broken, alone, and suicidal—I was the empty shell of a once-promising rugby player, shuffling around an exercise yard in a London prison. I was a man of extreme violence who had done seven stretches behind bars.
One morning around that time, I watched a flock of birds take off from a ledge outside my cell. Right then, I knew God was real—and that he had reached down to rescue me from the pit of hell.
As a child, there was violence everywhere I turned. My mother had been widowed by her first husband, abused for 20 years by her second, and deserted by my father (whom she never married) when I was eight months old. She and my two sisters surrounded me with love—I was the little favorite of the family. But she was also a harsh disciplinarian and liberally wielded what we called “the Allen stick” to keep me under control.
Throbbing with anger and resentment toward my absent father, I was constantly getting into scraps with neighborhood bullies, hoping to earn their respect. I was also abused several times: by a family friend, by a boy across the road, and by a man I can’t say much about because I’ve blocked the worst details from my memory.
I had some means of escape. Often I would skip school to go fishing or run off to the woods and dress up as an Army sergeant major, shouting commands at the other kids and exerting control to hide my inner pain. I loved sports and showed potential from an early age. And on Sundays, I would venture out on my own to attend church. At home I was fatherless and abused, but there I felt safe and at peace.
One morning, alerted by the shrieks of my eldest sister, I came downstairs to find my mother dead on the sofa, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. Something snapped in me that day—I was only 14—that put me on the road to destruction for the next 20 years.
I went to three schools, getting expelled from the first two for unmanageable behavior. By the time I left home at 16, I was a ticking time bomb—angry, bitter, and lost. My sister ran pubs, and I started down the path of drinking, gambling, and fighting, emulating the “gangster” lifestyle. This was my idea of what it meant to be a man.
But I excelled at rugby, and at 17 I signed a professional contract with Sheffield Eagles. Soon enough, I had far more money than good sense. Craving acceptance from members of the criminal underworld I perversely thought of as “family,” I began fighting for money, selling drugs, collecting debts for dealers, and generally bullying and intimidating my way through life. I walked into my first prison term as a lost little boy trapped inside a professional rugby player’s body.
It didn’t take long for prison to turn me into a hardened criminal. It was a hostile world—physically, mentally, and emotionally—where only the fittest survived. In prison I developed a heroin addiction, which left me alienated from my firstborn daughter and her mother.
Between sentences, I went chasing the bright lights of London but ended up sleeping on the streets of the Strand. Without the “good fortune” of being sent back, I might have died. Back in custody, spurred forward by a picture of my daughter on my cell wall, I resolved to rebuild my life. During the next two years, I caught up on my schooling and got clean from heroin. But after the next release, I soon returned to my old ways. The vicious merry-go-round kept spinning: drinking, drugs (now cocaine), partying, violence, sex, and before long, a trip back to the slammer.
During my stints in prison, I was always drawn to the chapel. I considered it a place of refuge, just as church had offered a safe haven from the tumult of my childhood. Over the years, I experimented with everything: Buddhism, Hinduism, spiritualism, counseling, course after course, medication—but nothing worked. I was still a wreck. Despite my burning desire to change, I couldn’t find any peace or stability.
Eventually, after stabbing a number of fellow inmates, I landed in Belmarsh, a top-security prison in southeast London. I hated who I had become. With my violent outbursts and paranoid behavior, I had pushed away anyone I ever cared for—and put my family through hell. I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually broken. Outwardly, I sought “respect” by lashing out against anyone or anything in my way. But on the inside, I remained a lost little boy in desperate need of love and acceptance.
While awaiting trial in a kidnapping and hostage-taking case, I finally hit rock bottom and decided to commit suicide. With tears streaming down my face, I dropped to my knees and made one final plea to God: “If you’re real and you hear me, put a white dove outside my prison window. Show me you are with me!” At the time, I had no conception of the dove being a symbol for the Holy Spirit. I was only looking for some sign of hope and new beginnings.
The next morning, when a flock of pigeons lifted off the nearby ledge, I saw the dove sitting there. Something inside me jumped, and tears of joy replaced tears of despair.
After transferring to another prison in Leeds, I began praying and studying the Bible in earnest. Reading Joyce Meyer’s Battlefield of the Mind, I stumbled across a chapter where Meyer describes taking the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, rolling it into a ball, and laying it at Jesus’ feet. I decided to do the same with my rage. Before going to sleep, I closed my eyes, imagined Jesus on the cross, balled up my rage, and surrendered it to him. When I awoke, I felt peace like never before.
Being a Christian—and turning away from drinking, drugs, and sleeping around—hasn’t been easy. (It’s tough having a functioning conscience!) At first I was on fire for Christ, and my zeal would outrun my better judgment. I would strike up conversations with complete strangers and probably put them off forever. I would go to pubs to tell people about Jesus and—still enslaved to old habits—end up drinking to excess. On one occasion, I found myself in bed with a woman after trying to share the gospel with her. I needed serious refining.
But God, in his patience, kept using this broken vessel for his purposes. He has given me the privilege of going into prisons—at first under the supervision of more mature Christians, then increasingly on my own—and testifying to the hope and forgiveness he offers. I have spoken to rooms full of men convicted of the most heinous crimes, including pedophiles and murderers, and seen them reduced to tears. At a key moment when I wondered where my life was going, God helped me launch a ministry (Steps to Freedom) that reaches out to young people abandoned by society. He let me return to my first love, sports, as a chaplain serving several teams.
Miraculously, God has even given me my family back. It has taken years, but one by one he has repaired broken relationships with my sisters and their families, with my three children, and with the father who deserted us so long ago.
The refining process has been long and hard. But bit by bit, it’s polishing me into a trophy of God’s grace.
Jeremiah 13:23 — Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.
Jeremiah 31:18-19 — …You disciplined me like an unruly calf, and I have been disciplined. Restore me, and I will return, because you are the Lord my God. After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.
Jeremiah 31:33…34b — “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people… For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.