Church Army - Inspire June 09 - Paul Fitzpatrick
KOFO BAPTIST speaks to Church Army's Head of Fundraising about how he left a life of crime to follow Christ
Paul Fitzpatrick never really wanted to end up with a criminal conviction. It just sort of happened.
One day he was a happy young boy growing up with his mum, dad and two siblings and the next, he had been thrust in the middle of a difficult family situation.
When Paul was about five years old, his mum developed severe mental illness and quickly became a shadow of her old self.
She spent a huge amount of time in a mental institution and his dad, not knowing how to deal with his wife's condition, turned to the bottle. Alcohol eventually took over.
Paul and his siblings were often left alone, with family friends calling in to see if they were OK. One of the family friends, Tim*, sexually abused Paul when he was nine years old.
"I couldn't tell anyone what he did to me," remembers Paul. "Mum was in hospital and Dad was in the pub. Not knowing who to turn to, I bottled it all up inside."
Bottling it all up did more harm than good. Paul became withdrawn and unruly, and by the time he was 11, he had become an expert at stealing, burglary and violence. It wasn't long before he progressed to more serious crimes.
"In 1983, we were evicted from the flat my parents had, and moved into a pre-war council estate at Kennington Oval," he says. "I made new ‘friends’ in the criminal world.
“I settled into becoming even more proficient and even more violent in my activities. Drink featured a lot in my life and in late 1984, on one of my many drinking binges, I bumped into Tim who had abused me.
“I was filled with anger and rage that he got away with what he did to me. I was even more upset when I overheard him tell his friend what he had done to me. I couldn't believe it – it was like he was relishing in what he had put me through.
“I decided that his time had come and I was going to put an end to his perverseness, permanently."
Later that night Paul followed Tim home with a knife and violently stabbed him with intent to kill. Tim survived, but Paul ended up in prison on attempted murder charges. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in youth custody.
Prison was an eye-opener for the 18-year-old Paul. He had a tough front, but the toughness did nothing to mask the emptiness he felt inside.
He knew something wasn't right but he couldn’t put a finger on it. Until the day someone mysteriously signed him up for an evening Bible group where Christians from churches would come in and sit with the lads, drinking coffee with them.
At these evenings there would be about 15 prisoners, the Christian visitors, a Church Army Evangelist named Trevor and the Chaplain, Tom.
Little by little these meetings began to influence Paul. One day, listening to Trans World Radio, Paul gave his life to God.
He explains: "I realised that if I didn’t change I was going to spend the rest of my days in a cell. I was looking into my own fire, and all I could see was the misery and hurt I had caused.
“I asked God if he could sort me out, then I would give him a go and follow him. I didn’t really know how to pray, so I simply asked Jesus to forgive me."
It was hard for Paul as he got used to being a follower of Christ in a hostile environment, but he learnt how to take things one step at a time. He became an evangelist to other prisoners, telling them about the Jesus who could change their lives.
"My cell was nicknamed ‘the sin-bin’. They always seemed to put the hard cases in with me. Most found peace in asking Jesus Christ to be their Saviour.
“I became the Chaplain’s orderly and together, Tom, the Christian visitors and I gave it a good shot at sharing faith with all who listened."
About two-and-a-half years later, Paul was released from prison and slowly started to rebuild his life. He signed up to train with Church Army and in 1998, after three years of training, he was admitted into the Office of the Evangelist with the Church of England.
"Eleven years later, I am as active an evangelist as I was in those early days in prison," he says. "I am passionate about seeing others experience for themselves that Christ can truly change them.
“I am a realist and know that each of us has to manage our emotions and desires. My ministry today is working as the Head of Fundraising for Church Army. I am charged with the responsibility of ensuring some £3m is raised each year to sustain ministries.
"Many have said to me that believing in Jesus is a load of rubbish. All I can say is that my own life is a witness that irrefutably challenges that. God has got a sense of humour – he took me from robbery to fundraising. How about that?"
*Names have been changed