An ex-criminal turned Christian evangelist will be visiting Hastings next month to talk about how his faith helped him turn his life around.
There was a time when John Lawson thought nothing over handing out beatings to those who owed money.
At one point he even planned a murder.
But while in prison after being jailed for attempted extortion he found his faith and began his journey of repentance and redemption.
John, 52, from Seaford, said he readily embraced criminality while growing up in his teen years.
His family moved from Glasgow to South Africa when he was three, his father joining the police force in Durban.
I went back to the pastor the next day and asked him how could I get a new heart and spirit. He really shared the message in a very simple way. A week later I cried out loud to God in my prison cell and asked for forgiveness for all of the sins I had committed. I woke up the next day and felt free even though I was behind bars. A change began in me that people noticed. I was not violent anymore and I stopped swearing. God changed me so muchJohn Lawson
But he returned to the UK with his mother when he was 10 after his dad ran off with another woman.
John said: “We moved to Birkenhead, Merseyside. It was a culture shock for me returning to the UK to hear children using bad language because it was very strict in South Africa.
“Then we returned to Scotland, living in Drumchapel on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1977. I saw children doing drugs, carrying knives and glue sniffing. I had to learn how to defend myself. I got very involved in martial arts and I soon associated violence with credibility. I ended up with this violent and angry mentality.”
John left school with hardly any qualifications and was unable to get a job.
He said: “My uncles were millionaires running sex shops in Soho and so on.
“I went to London to work with them, running hostess bars, making £40,000 a week. This led to my first trip to prison as I had threatened an American tourist when he wouldn’t pay his bill and I was jailed for nine months.
“I then worked as a bouncer in Merseyside. There was a lot of violent confrontation. The incredible level of violence was increasing and was normal to me. I was a single parent by the time I was 23 and I joined a motorcycle gang.
“I ended up managing the largest brothel in London and was jailed again for eight weeks.”
He added it was in prison that John made more criminal connections.
John said: “Someone was looking for a team of people to get involved in some serious debt collecting for gangsters.
“When I got out of prison I trained to be a bodyguard, got married again and had two more children. As a bodyguard I worked with lots of famous people and movie stars and for a small time with the Rolling Stones in Edinburgh.
“In the circles I was moving in there were a lot of gangsters. People who had problems with money would come to people like us.
“We were a very discreet team of men made up of ex-soldiers and ex-military being sent to places like the Costa del Sol. I had a very lucrative lifestyle involving kidnappings and gangsters. I justified this by saying they were the bad guys because I didn’t smoke, drink nor beat my wife.”
He said the team worked for gangsters to collect debts owed by other mobsters who would not go to the police because of their criminality.
John added: “I was planning murder at one point, I am ashamed to say. Thank goodness the police caught up with me.
“I was so cold-hearted at the time, as I agreed to pull the trigger. I was sent to prison for four years for attempted extortion.
“I had threatened a man and his family and we went dressed as police officers. This was in 2004.
“A month later after I was sentenced they tried to make me give evidence against the rest of the gang and I refused. I was rude to the judge and got another 15 months added to my prison sentence for contempt of court.
“I was such an arrogant idiot. All of my assets were seized, the house, and bank accounts frozen. My home had to be sold. My actions impacted on my family, as they had to move into temporary accommodation.
“I began to see what an idiot I had been. My wife and family had no idea what I was involved in and I got divorced while in prison.”
John was serving time in Glenochil jail, outside Stirling in Scotland. It was there he befriended a Nigerian man.
The father-of-four said: “He was a Christian and always talked about Jesus and God and I didn’t believe it at all. Every Thursday a pastor from Dunblane came to run a Bible study and this Nigerian man would invite me. After four months I agreed to go only because there were coffee and biscuits.
“I made a plan to steal as much cake and biscuits as possible but before I could we were moved into another room. The pastor pulled out a guitar and gave out song sheets. These violent prisoners started singing in a way I never imagined. The men seemed to relax and seemed happy even though they were serving life sentences. There was one song I began to read the words for and I knew I was going to cry. I couldn’t help myself and hid my face behind the song sheet.”
The next day John read a passage from a Bible the Nigerian friend gave him. The passage, from Ezekiel, read: “If a wicked man steps away from the wickedness he has committed, if he does what is just and right it will save his life.”
John said: “It says if a wicked man turns away from his wickedness he can have a new heart and new spirit. There was something in this I wanted. I really began to see I was a wicked man, to see every lie and cheat and the blood on my hands. I felt a shame I’d never felt before. I saw the animal that I’d become.
“I went back to the pastor the next day and asked him how could I get a new heart and spirit. He really shared the message in a very simple way. A week later I cried out loud to God in my prison cell and asked for forgiveness for all of the sins I had committed.
“I woke up the next day and felt free even though I was behind bars. A change began in me that people noticed. I was not violent anymore and I stopped swearing. God changed me so much. When I left jail in May 2007 I left with a new heart and spirit.”
For the last 11 years John has shared his faith in some of the toughest prisons in the world, as well as in schools and community events.
He has also spoken on TV and radio. John’s life story has been captured in the true crime biography, If A Wicked Man.
John is visiting Hastings on Saturday, July 14 and will be at His Place Community Church in Robertson Street from 9.30am to 4pm. The event is called Passion 1066 and he will be sharing some of his life story, background and how he became a Christian.
The event is for Christians and designed to help and equip them to share their faith, John said.
Tickets are £7.50 on the door. To find out more about the event, email firstname.lastname@example.org.