In 1976 Andy Clark was working four days on/three days off as a nursing auxiliary in a mental hospital in Lancashire. One night he got back late to his hostel, walked into the living room and lit a cigarette. A newspaper was on the table. He lit it. The fire spread rapidly through the one-fl oor hostel. Fortunately the fire brigade were able to bring it under control and no one was hurt.
“Subconsciously I wanted to make other peoples’ lives a mess,” says Andy. “I was angry at the hospital and angry at myself. I was adopted at two. My adoptive Dad died of a brain haemorrhage when I was 15. I was bullied at school.”
To deal with his loneliness, anger and bitterness, Andy had got into vandalism in his early teens – nicking car aerials and tramping over gardens. Then he began to drink 10 pints a day, to smoke and to gamble. Now arson became his way of dealing with his problems. Over the next 20 years he habitually lit fires in waste bins, skips and garages, and spent time in borstal. The cycle came to an end in 1996 when he succeeded in setting fire to a two-storey block of flats on his third attempt. Andy had already been committed three times for the same offence, so the judge activated a discretionary life sentence.
“This was my wake-up call,” Andy says. One year in, a guy called Gary knocked on his cell door and introduced himself as a Christian. “It was so unusual inside, someone to greet you like that,” recalls Andy. “It spoke to me. I could see he was a genuine person.”
Also the members of a church he had briefly attended sent him a photo album, stuffed with pictures and letters. “That blew me away,” says Andy. “People who hadn’t met me were saying they’d pray for me.
“I got down on my knees in my cell and prayed.”
Over the next two-and-a-half years everything opened up. Andy began to trust people for the first time, to go to chapel and to attend Jesus Fellowship meetings. The latter freaked him a bit – with its informal worship, and the use of spiritual gifts such as tongues, but he expressed an interest. As he neared the end of his sentence, and was wondering what to do next, a letter arrived from Phil and Polly, from the Jesus Fellowship in Northamptonshire, asking if he’d like them to visit. From then on he invited them to “Lifer” days as his friends and family.
Andy was released on 14 May 2004, and Polly and a friend picked him up. Six weeks later he joined the church. The transition has not been without its teething problems – Andy’s had a few drinks, and suffered pressure with work. “You’ve got to put up such an image in prison,” he explains. “You can’t be seen to be weak. Prison is a structured life – people telling you when to get up, go to bed, what to eat. If I didn’t see community as family, it could be exactly the same. But the Lord prepared me to share with people, and to understand what I was feeling and why. That’s helped me much more to bond.”
This understanding has now led him to write letters to prisoners who contact the church. One reply he had read like this: “Dear Andy, The letter brought tears to my eyes. Why? Well, it’s not been often that anyone shows an interest in me. I’m an outcast of the worst kind, I’m the black sheep of my family. I’m also a very lonely Christian, careful who I fellowship with.” C.
“People need someone who’s going to be loyal,” says Andy. “I’ll write as long as they’re still inside. “The reason I went into nursing was because I wanted to make a difference. Now I just want to bring people into the Kingdom of God and nourish them. I want to be involved in catering at the Northampton Jesus Centre, and with the ‘Open Doors’ group for ex-prisoners.
“Here there is a home for people, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what issues they’ve got. If you belong to this Fellowship, you’ll have time to deal with all those things. If you’re really wanting to change and sort your life out, we can help.”
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