FORMER London gangster John Pridmore had a reputation as a violent enforcer.
One night, while working as a bouncer at a West End nightclub owned by the mob, he savagely beat a man.
He did it to impress one of his gangland bosses.
Wearing knuckledusters, John landed one last powerful punch and watched the man fall straight backwards and smash his head on the curb.
There was blood everywhere and people were screaming.
“I truly thought I had killed this man,” he said.
“And as I drove home that night the thing that scared me the most is that I didn’t care.”
Something triggered inside John.
“How can you become so dead that you kill someone and not even care? The only person I cared about was myself and I didn’t think that would ever change,” he said.
The man, though badly beaten, survived.
Two weeks later, God came calling.
“I heard a voice speaking to me in my heart, it is a voice we all know, our conscience, God within us,” John said.
“Up to his point, I felt God was just a nice little story to keep us from being bad, but now I was faced with the fact that God was real and it didn’t matter what I thought.”
John fell to his knees and prayed for the first time and it felt incredible.
Tall, shaved-bald and built like a bear, the 51-year-old is still an imposing figure.
But it’s nearly two-and-a-half decades since this soft-spoken former gangster turned to God.
He was born in the East End of London and though baptised as a Catholic he didnt go to a Catholic school or to Church.
At the age of 10 he was devastated when told his parents were getting divorced.
He was asked to choose between living with his mother or his father.
“I loved my parents so much and I couldn’t choose because the two people I loved the most had just crushed me,” John said.
“It was then that deep down inside I made a choice not to love anymore because I thought if I don’t love I won’t get hurt.”
After John’s parents split up he started stealing.
“I think I wanted someone to take notice of the pain that I was in, but because my dad was a policeman it just added to getting beatings,” he said.
At 15, he was in a detention centre and left school at this same age. The only qualification he had was stealing, so that is what he did.
Without any love in his life, he started drinking, and taking painkillers and other drugs – anything to kill the pain within.
At 19 he was in prison again. His angry outbursts and fighting earned himself long stints in solitary confinement.
By the time he came out of prison, John was more bitter and violent than ever.
“I thought what I want from this world, I have to take because no one gives you anything,” he said.
“I started working as a bouncer around the East End and West End clubs in London; I thought ‘I like fighting so I might as well get paid for it’.
“It was there that I met some of the guys who ran most of the organised crime in London.”
John climbed the gangland ladder, living the classic gangster lifestyle with plenty of money, drugs and women.
He wore a designer leather jacket with a specially tailored inside pocket so he could have a machete ready for when he collected debts and punished those who failed to pay.
“I truly believed what the world told me was true, that having all of the possessions, relationships and drugs would make me happy, but I was utterly empty inside,” he said.
After the near-fatal assault, John said he would never forget his first meeting with God and getting down on his knees to pray.
“I could not believe God could love someone like me with all the terrible things I had done, but He kept showing me that He loved me and accepted me,” he said.
“All throughout my life I had felt useless and it didn’t matter if I lived or died, but God showed me that it did matter because He loved me and created me.
“The only person I knew who had a faith was my Mum; I didn’t see a lot of her in those days, but I went round to her and told her what had happened.
“She told me she had prayed for me every day of my life, but two weeks before this she had prayed to let Jesus take me.
“If that meant let me die then to let me die, just don’t let me hurt myself or anyone else anymore.”
John’s mother sent him on a retreat, during which, at the age of 27, he confessed his sins for the first time.
“And as I was confessing all of those most terrible sins, the priest was crying because he was Jesus to me,” he said.
“He was showing me the mercy of God, which I could feel in my heart.
“When I received absolution I knew it was Jesus forgiving me and setting me free.
“All my sins had been tipped out at the foot of the cross and I was alive again, I could feel the wind on my face, I could hear the birds singing.
“My sins had killed me but confession had brought me back to life.
“Along with meeting Jesus through confession I received Him into my heart during the Mass at that same retreat.”
When John left the retreat he was determined to help others, so he began working on Kingsmeade Estate in London trying to help young kids stay away from the life of crime and pain that he had endured.
A few years later, he went to the Bronx, in the United States and there met Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
“She taught me how to love again, to love myself and others. She inspired me to give and since then I have been sharing my story in schools, parishes and prisons,” John said.
“In 2008, at World Youth Day in Sydney I had the privilege to speak to more than half a million young people and the greatest gift in my life is to share with them that there is a God who loves them, who cherishes them and rejoices in them.”
John’s ministry is now worldwide.
In Australia since June, he has spoken to 16,000 secondary school students, as well as parish groups and visited inmates in a Melbourne jail.
He has written three books including the bestseller From Gangland to Promised Land.
His website www.johnpridmore.com features videos of his talks from around the world, links to his Facebook account and his latest blog updates.
By Mark Bowling