Ian Williamson was 28 years old and life made no sense to him. He was a nightclub bouncer with a £200-a-week cocaine habit; into sex, violence, alcohol and self-harm. Now, ten years later, he runs an inspiring Christian ministry to men and young people from troubled backgrounds in South Bank, a suburb of Middlesbrough in the north east of England. Matthew Evans asked Ian about his work, and how he got to where he is today, from where he was back then.
Ian, tell us about your conversion
My life was such a mess; I was suicidal. I wanted to love and be loved, but didn’t know how. My mum was a Christian and had prayed for me for years. I desperately wanted to change, but if there was no God then it was the law of the jungle; survival of the fittest.
That was how I lived my life. Things finally came to a head one day when I pulled out a knife in front of my mum and threatened to stab myself. As I broke down in tears, she told me that Jesus could help me.
I was so angry to hear her say this, but she urged me to cry out to him. And I did; I said I would follow him if he really was there. The following morning I woke up with all the same problems, but a new sense of hope.
My new life of discipleship got off to a rocky start. It was a long time before I was free from my addictions and I still worked as a bouncer, with all the old temptations. When things went wrong in my life, I found it too easy to return to my old sins.
I joined a local church but I was an intimidating, aggressive character and people found it hard to cope with me. Eventually I was helped by someone who worked for Teen Challenge. He told me that what I needed was not rehab, but a move away from Middlesbrough and all its temptations.
So I moved away, found a new church and the help of a group of Christian men who gave me intensive support and encouragement. Over a period of two years I finally got my life on track.
How did the ministry of SixtyEightFive come about?
I had been raised with the insecurity of no dad; he walked out on the family when I was 8 years old.
By the time I was 14, my heroes were Rambo, Mike Tyson and the local drug dealers. My goals were sex and drink. But even at that young age a verse of Scripture was impressed upon me. A man from my mum’s church had shared Psalm 68:5 with me: ‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling’.
This verse stayed with me and, after I was converted, I contacted him again and he mentored me. This verse describes the need of so many of the young people who are upon my heart that I took it as the name of the organisation.
Before I began SixtyEightFive, I worked for Spurgeon’s Child Care, the LEA and in prison ministry. I was employed for my ‘life experience’ rather than my skills. I was told to just ‘do what you do’.
I had two goals: the protection of vulnerable young people and being a role model for them; and, secondly, enabling them to hear the gospel.
A survey some time ago suggested that young, white, poor males are the least likely group in the UK to hear the gospel — the very people that I was dealing with. I also discovered that most of the men I was seeing behind bars had had no father when they were growing up. How could I get to them before they ended up in prison?
My wife, Rachel, and I were feeling increasingly called to a new work, something we wanted to do together, as a family. The question was: where did the Lord want us to be? We were open to Africa, South America — anywhere!
But eventually we realised that we were being directed back to the very place where my life — and my problems — had all begun, South Bank. Over half the children there are raised by a lone parent. It has massive social, economic and spiritual problems and only a small evangelical presence.
With all the contacts we already had in South Bank, along with the great needs and opportunities, this was the place we should work. The place held painful memories for me, but I sensed God drawing us back there. But this time, to make a difference for the gospel.
I shared my vision of working as a community chaplain. And so I found myself working in the community of South Bank, among so much need, bringing love, practical help and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people.
What encouragements have you known?
Local government agencies, the police and the council can see the value in what we are doing. I was invited by a local sheltered housing project to conduct a carol service for them and had the freedom to bring a gospel message to the staff Christmas party for the local Sure Start.
We distribute food hampers and clothing in the community and I am currently working with a well known local character, praying with him and talking to him. His parents have started reading the Bible!
And what about the challenges of the work?
It can be heartbreaking when you have invested time in people who relapse on drugs and die of overdoses or end up back in prison. We have to remember that we’re not God! All we can do is point people to Jesus and offer support. The rest is up to them and the Holy Spirit.
With permission of Affinity