November 11, 2019

From Gangs to God: How Jesus Saved My Life

Just a few years ago, Sam Wilkins was entrenched in a life of gang involvement, drug distribution, and violence. It was chaotic, but at the time, he loved it. Then God intervened. I recently sat down with Sam to ask him about how God saved him and what life’s like for him now as a Christian.

Where are you from? Give us a brief overview of your past.

I’m from Newport, Wales. That’s where I grew up. It was just me, my mother, and my younger brother. We lived a hard life, but we embraced it. My mum loved me the best she could (which wasn’t always easy). I got involved in crime at a very young age. Even as a young man, I was able to work my way up through the ranks in the gangs. I was an evil man. Really evil. But I had everything: power, reputation, influence.

By the age of 26, I was ranked high in the ‘underworld’. I was second in command in a very powerful gang—next in line to take the whole thing over. I had a squad of boys around me, and we were involved in all sorts of terror—drugs, violence, firearms; you name it, we did it. I was known for being someone who wouldn’t take any messing. I did bad things to a lot of good people, unfortunately (mind you, I did bad things to a lot of bad people as well). Either way, it was all sin. And that was my life. I loved it. What man wouldn’t? Listen, every single man has an ego. If you don’t know the Lord, what are you going to know? Your ego. And as far as egos go, I had good reason for mine to be puffed up: money, power, reputation. I was at the top. And it would take something real and serious for me to give all of that up.

When did you first hear the gospel?

I’ve been saved for about 18 months now. Two years before I got saved, I was in a nightclub collecting money for drugs. It was a pretty normal night. Then, a woman I’d never seen before approached me and said: “I know who you are.” I said: “Alright. Good for you.” Then she looked me right in the eye and told me the gospel. I had no idea what she was talking about. I remember replying: “What did you just say to me?” Then I proceeded to ask if she was on drugs, and ended up offering to sell some to her. That was just the way things went in that world. I brushed it off and got on with things.

Except I couldn’t. Not really. In the two years that followed, as I was going about with my boys, doing the usual things we did, I was unsettled. Something was nagging away at me. Don’t get me wrong: outwardly, things were going well (in a worldly sense). I was about to move up in the ranks again. But something inside me was unwinding. So about a year after the encounter with the woman in the nightclub, as I was in the middle of doing something very bad, I just broke down crying. I absolutely lost it. I was a mess. My boys were all around me, but I couldn’t stop. No one knew what to do. Two of them were so spooked that they grabbed their shooters because they thought something terrible had happened. You see, this kind of thing never happened. You didn’t just break down and cry, not in that world. Crying was a big sign of weakness. Everyone was shocked.

I managed to get out of that situation and went into hiding for a bit. I was trying to figure out what was happening to me. In the end, I went to the top guys in the gang and asked to get out. I thought I was going to be killed for this. I fully expected to die. I’d seen it happen to other guys when they tried to get out. You don’t just leave that life. But, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, they let me go. I was allowed to walk out. I was told that I’d never be allowed back in, and I’d lose all my connections—which I’d worked for years to build. With this came not only a total loss of income, but also a severing of just about every relationship in my life. All of it, gone in an instant. Just like that. A few of my boys who were very close to me didn’t understand. They tried to contact me, but they were quickly forbidden by gang leaders. So I had nothing, and I had no one.

What did you do next?

I knew I needed to find a church, so I went to a local one in town. But it felt like a cult, so I left and found another one. It was a decent church. It was full of very middle-class people who didn’t have a clue what to do with me. And I didn’t have a clue what to do with myself. But in God’s providence, one of them knew Mez [McConnell]. That’s what eventually led me here to Scotland.

That’s quite a radical move you made—leaving behind power, prestige, and success to suddenly find yourself with nothing. No friends, no work, no connections. Why did you do it?

At the time, I didn’t know. I honestly had no clue what was going on. But looking back, it’s clear that a seed had been planted by that woman in the nightclub—the one who told me the gospel. And even now, as I look back on it all, I can’t help but be amazed at what God rescued me from. That night when I broke down crying in front of my boys, I think I’d realised that I was a sinner. I understood—even if in a very clouded kind of way—that Jesus went to the cross for my sins.

One of the ways I know that the Holy Spirit was at work in me was that I started to feel remorse. I’d done so many horrific things in my life, but I’d never felt remorse. Up to that point, I’d grown numb to the evil I had done. But God opened my eyes. He lifted the scales from them and caused me to see how wicked I was. I remember hearing a voice in my head—don’t misunderstand me, I’m not claiming to have heard God’s voice or something like that—but the voice seemed to say: “That’s enough now, Sam.” And that was it for me. I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but I suddenly felt physically sick at the life I’d lived. I was repulsed by the things I’d done. And the prospect that I—wretched man that I am—could be forgiven? That was big to me. It was incredibly powerful.

How did you end up in Niddrie?

Well, the church I was part of down in Wales was great to me. The people were kind, and they loved me despite my crazy life. Some of them took me in and helped me in the early days of following Jesus. There are a few brothers in particular who I’m eternally grateful for. But still, for various reasons, it wasn’t healthy for me to be in Wales. So one of the guys at the church knew Mez, as I said before. And Mez invited me up to Niddrie for a visit. I didn’t want to go, and I was determined not to stay longer than a weekend. Yet now, just over a year later, here I am in Niddrie as an intern and youth worker.

What has discipleship looked like for you in the church here?

The most significant thing for me has been experiencing the church as family. I now live with Mez and his family, and I’ll never forget the first time I sat around the table with them for dinner. Listen, I’ve faced a lot in my short life and been in some mad situations, but I’ve never sweat as much as when I first sat down for dinner around the McConnell’s table. It was so weird to me. And yet, the love I felt there was something I’d never experienced before. Mez is like a father to me now. Miriam and the girls are like my family. And it’s like that with the whole church here. These people are my family. I’ve learned that this is what discipleship is, and now I can pass this on.

Another family in the church—the Nelson’s—have basically adopted me. I’d do anything for them. And even though I didn’t know it for most of my life, this—right here, in the church—this is what it’s all about. Because I also left a family of sorts. In my old life—sure, it was bad—but my boys and I had each other’s backs, you know? We would do anything for each other. We looked out for one another. If I had £10, they had £10, you get me? That was how it worked. There was real loyalty there. So at one level, it was hard to leave that behind. I felt as though I’d let them down. I felt like a coward. And I thought I’d never find something to replace that kind of ‘family’. But coming to Niddrie has been the best thing for me. And I couldn’t have done it in my own strength. God got me here. Plain and simple.

Even now, I’ll be reading stuff in the Bible that I don’t understand. It’ll be 10 o’clock at night, and I’ll say: “Mez, who the heck is Melchizedek?” And he takes the time to help me understand. People here are teaching me and showing me what it means to follow Jesus. But—and I know this sounds mad—I’ve also had to learn how to do basic things: washing the dishes, making the bed, cleaning stuff up. You see, in my old life, I didn’t have to do that stuff. I could just pay people who’d take care of it for me, or I simply wouldn’t do it at all. But now I’m learning that following Jesus means learning how to serve. Here’s what guys from my background need—and we don’t like to admit this—love. We need love. Just like anyone, we need people who will share our burdens, call us to repent when we’re in sin, and help us to walk with Jesus on a daily basis. That’s exactly what the church is helping me to do.

What’s it like being the male youth worker here at Niddrie Community Church?

It’s amazing. It’s such a privilege to be involved in the lives of these young lads in the scheme. One of the things I know, coming from my background, is that they don’t care if you’ve got a degree. They don’t care if you’ve been a Christian for 10 years. They just want people to be real with them. Most of these boys come from very broken homes. I know what that’s like. So I’m able to get alongside them from a place of real understanding, and I do my best to love them by pointing them to Jesus. And they respect me and that inspires me to be a role model for them.

I need to tell them the gospel. I can’t not do that. It’s like I’ve got the cure for cancer, you know? If one of my people had cancer, and I’m sitting on the cure, how unloving would it be for me to keep that from them? Well, we’ve got the cure. The cure for death. The cure for sin. How could we not tell people? So that’s what I do with these young lads: I spend time with them and tell them about Jesus. And they know that’s what they’re going to get from me.

What has been the biggest cost to following Jesus? What about the biggest gain?

Losing my family. I’m away from my mother, whom I love dearly. I’m away from my brother and, even though we’ve had our ups and downs, I love him dearly too. I was always there for him. I was there to fight his battles. But now I’m not. That’s hard. And to be honest, I miss my boys. I don’t miss the life that I was leading alongside them, but I do miss them. You’ve got to understand: we bled together, you know. It’s hard.

In fact, one of my mates recently got in touch with me. He’s just been released from prison. And it was difficult talking to him. The worst thing was that it was like my throat was closed about the gospel. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Jesus. So in the middle of our conversation, I said to him: “Give me a minute”, and I put the phone down, walked away, and prayed. I asked God to give me strength to tell my friend about Jesus. With tears in my eyes, I went back to the phone, picked it up, and said to him: “Listen, before we talk any more, I need to tell you that I’m a Christian. Jesus has saved my life, and he can do the same for you if you trust Him.” My friend replied: “I’ve heard some stuff about this. I heard through the grapevine that this is your life now. And I know what you’re capable of. I know what you could do to me. But I can never speak to you again.” And he hung up. That was it. It was tough. So the loss of close family and friends has been real and painful. But, you know, I’ve also gained family. And what I’ve been given far outweighs any loss. I’ve been forgiven of my sins. I have riches in heaven. And I have people here in this church—brothers and sisters—who love me and serve me and point me to Jesus. And that only happens in Christ. This is what a real ‘gang’ is.

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