I was drinking a lot at the time. Also, I had recently lost my job. I was training to be a psychiatric nurse, but was given the sack for punching out windows in the nursing home and throwing what my letter of dismissal called "human excrement" at passers-by. One could argue that the drink, and the drugs I had taken while training, had knocked my mind out of kilter - and Billy Graham was very persuasive.
What finally did for me was the part of his sermon where he told the story of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish monk who volunteered to die in Auschwitz's notorious starvation cell in order to save the life of a fellow prisoner. The story got right in amongst me. The idea of somebody volunteering to starve to death so that somebody else might live suggested a degree of selflessness that I hadn't previously imagined. "F*** off", I'm afraid, had been my motto until then. But here was something much more subversive. I'll have some of that, I thought. So when Mr Graham appealed to those of us who wanted to become part of that same love to come forward, I joined the thousands of other eager penitents racing across the pitch.
When football commentators talk about a crowded penalty area, they don't know what they are talking about. There must have been three or four thousand of us out there giving our hearts to Jesus. Instead of tongues of fire descending from heaven, though, a worried-looking chap in a mackintosh came among us, taking down names and addresses, and handing out information packs.
Then a surprisingly cheerful bishop stood on a platform in the goalmouth and said he was going to pray for us. The prayer was going to be in Welsh, he explained, because that is the language of Heaven. Hearing this, I nearly changed my mind about going.
A week later, the pastor of the local Baptist church came to my house. The Billy Graham people had given him my address, he said, and would I like to join a weekly "nurture group" for new Christians. OK, I said.
I went to his nurture group and then I gave my "testimony" in public and was baptised. I helped run the youth club. I went away with the "young people" to Christian camps in the summer. I kept off the vodka.
Then, sadly, the church became infiltrated by radical charismatics. They firmly believed that these were the Last Days and that Satan was abroad. Members of the congregation who disagreed were said to be "demonised". The chronically sick were told that their illnesses were a symptom of their sin and unbelief. Certain women danced in a strange and abandoned manner during the evening service. A spiritual elite, consisting exclusively of those who could speak in tongues, took over. When my girlfriend became pregnant, the vicar told me I had to stand up in front of the congregation and apologise for having pre-marital sex. Back at square one, I told him to f*** off.
After that I stopped praying and everything. Worse still, I became bitter and said I hated Christians. But when I noticed that I was becoming a little too addicted to my hatred, I decided it was time to start going to church again, before my hatred turned into a mental illness.
I don't go often - about three times a year at most. And I don't go to a church service. Instead, I go and sit in the mellow silence of the University Church in Gordon Square, London, which is left open during the day for prayer and meditation. I might sit there for five or 10 minutes, looking blankly at the altar and the stained glass window behind. And then I might shut my eyes and say something like, "I'm sorry, God. I'm so, so sorry." And that's it.
When I was there on Wednesday, a young nun in a blue habit came quietly in and sat near me. She sat easily, with her hands folded gently into her lap and her head bowed. I watched her pray - hoping, I think, to catch her out. Some small mannerism betraying boredom or insincerity perhaps. Instead of which I saw that she was crying. She cried so strangely, too. With her eyes closed, and her face calm except for the quivering eyelids, the brimming tears pearled down her cheeks, and she let them fall. And then I thought again about Maximilian Kolbe, and my bitterness receded to almost nothing.Reuse content