Ex-London Gangster Turned Evangelizer Changes Lives With His Story

DUBLIN, Ireland — Standing 6-foot-4, burly and with a shaven head, John Pridmore looks nothing like you would expect an evangelist to look.

But during the last year, thousands of young people in Ireland have been spellbound by the 39-year-old ex-gangster's account of how he turned away from a life of brutal violence and crime in London's underworld and committed himself to Christ.

North American television viewers had an opportunity Jan. 29 to see Pridmore firsthand, when he was scheduled as a featured guest on EWTN's “Life on the Rock.”

The son of a policeman, Pridmore was born in East London. Although baptized a Catholic, he had no Christian upbringing. After his parents divorced, he began getting involved in petty crime. At age 17, he was sent to a youth prison.

Upon release, he started doing security work at pop concerts for artists such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Queen, then moved on to bouncer duties in London's nightclubs and bars.

This job led him into the London underworld and soon he became a drug dealer and “hard man,” involved with notorious criminals for whom stabbings and shootings were common.

With a machete in one pocket and wads of money in the other, he enjoyed the classic gangster lifestyle: designer suits, sex with a string of women, a Mercedes with a personalized number plate and a penthouse flat in one of London's most exclusive districts.

He had it all — or so he thought.

God's Call

One night in the summer of 1991, while working the door at a busy bar in central London, he launched into an argumentative drinker with his knuckle-duster and left the man lying in a pool of blood. He fled the scene with a gangland boss, convinced he had killed the man.

A few nights later, sitting alone in his flat, he felt a voice tell him about all the bad things he had ever done.

“I fell to my knees and pleaded for another chance,” Pridmore said. “I then felt as if someone's hands were on my shoulders and I was being lifted up. This incredible warmth overpowered me and the fear vanished. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew that God really existed.”

The man he had assaulted survived, and Pridmore turned his back on crime and violence. He began praying, undertaking penances, reading the Bible and going to Mass.

Following a spell as a volunteer in a drop-in center, he landed a job as a youth worker on a tough East London housing project and subsequently became a postulant in 1999 with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in South Bronx, N.Y. After six months, he decided he was not called to religious life and returned to England to join the Youth 2000 mission team.

Since last year, he has been a member of Youth 2000's mission team in Ireland, living in a lay community just outside Dublin.

Pridmore's youth mission has to be rooted in prayer, both by himself and from others, he explained.

“I won't give a talk unless there is someone praying for me and the young people I'm speaking to,” he said. “One of the Youth 2000 team often prays while I'm speaking and we have a lot of contemplative religious orders praying for us. And I go to Mass each day, say the rosary and spend an hour in silent prayer.”

Word about the power of Pridmore's testimony has spread rapidly in Ireland, and Bishop Christopher Jones of Elphin, which includes Sligo, even gave him permission to preach at all the Sunday Masses in the local cathedral.

So how does Pridmore approach young people?

“We go into schools and tell the kids how much Jesus loves them personally,” he said. “I share my story and tell them how broken I was and that God loved me in that brokenness. No matter how weak we are, God can use us to make himself known to others.”

Youngsters are often unaware of how much they are loved by God, Pridmore said.

“Kids often have a low self-worth and don't know how precious they are,” he said. “They are all too often told, particularly through the media, that they can only be satisfied through drugs, money or sex. … I tell the kids that all these temptations of modern life only offer illusions of happiness, because it is Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.”

The schools in religiously divided Belfast, Northern Ireland, have provided the toughest challenge, Pridmore said.

“There's a lot of anger and pain in the city,” he said. “Young people there seem more hardened because of the troubles. But I find that once you break down the barriers, the youngsters are hungry for the truth.”

Changed Hearts

Sixteen-year-old Stuart Harris from Somerset is one of many young people who have been moved by Pridmore's testimony.

“John came into my school one day to give a talk,” the youth said. “At the time, I was living in a children's home and getting into a lot of trouble. He invited me to go on a retreat. Up until then I had never thought much about God. I went to confession on the retreat and six months later I became a Catholic. If I had not met John, I would not have met Jesus Christ.”

Father Digby Samuels, parish priest of St Patrick's in Wapping, London, said Pridmore has a major impact on young people because he is authentic.

“John is able to speak the language of young people, and he proclaims the Gospel with real power and also humor,” Father Samuels said. “Pope Paul VI said that people will no longer listen to teachers, but they will listen to witnesses. And John is a witness to how God can heal and change lives.”

Pridmore's mission to the youth will continue, he says, and he will go wherever he thinks God is calling him.

“It's Jesus who does the converting, not me,” he said. “I just try not to get in the way. The thing that gives me great hope, and should give others great hope, is that God can use someone as sinful and weak as me to do his work.”

Greg Watts writes from London.

From Gangland to Promised Land, by John Pridmore with Greg Watts, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.