I spent three days in court in Belfast last week, supporting Pastor James McConnell as he faced an absurd prosecution for comments he made about Islam in a sermon that was streamed on the internet. As I travelled in and out of Belfast for those three days, I couldn’t help reflecting on how much the city has changed – and how much my life has changed.
I parked my car near the Albert Clock, where over three decades ago I used to drink in a bar called “DuBarry’s”. I’m not saying it was a rough place, but they had a sign, with no humor intended, saying “No sex on the pool table, please” and you would sometimes find hair and dried blood on the grips of the pool cues where they had been used to smack someone across the head.
At lunch time between court sessions I enjoyed an espresso at a little cafe built on the same spot where I once used to sleep in a bombed-out house. Then I walked past the Salvation Army hostel in Victoria Street, where I was living at the time I gave my life to Christ in February 1981.
My last time in a courtroom in Belfast was nearly 35 years ago in the old Petty Sessions Court (just yards up Chichester Street from the brand-new Laganside Courts where the McConnell case was being heard). It had all started when a judge had previously placed me on 18-months probation for “Going Equipped for Theft.” I had been stopped and searched while carrying a crowbar under my jacket. Actually I was planning to bash someone’s head in with it, but once I got caught I figured I would get off more lightly for planning to commit a robbery than for planning to seriously hurt somebody! Then, a few months later, I knelt at the front of a Salvation Army hall in Dee Street and asked Christ to come into my life.
Everything in my life changed from that moment on, but I was to discover that sometimes the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly! One spring morning a police officer walked into into the Salvation Army hostel and handed me a court summons. I was to go to court on a charge of being Drunk and Disorderly. The only problem was, I had no idea what the charge was about. Apparently, a few weeks prior to my conversion to Christ, I had been so drunk that I had managed to get in a fight, get questioned by police, and then wake up the next morning with absolutely no memory of what had happened!
Now that I had received the summons, I was ashamed to tell any of my new-found Christian brothers and sisters what had happened. So that was how I found myself standing alone in the Petty Sessions court nearly 35 years ago. When the judge asked me how I wanted to plead, I said, “I don’t know!” He leaned forward and peered at me over his glasses. “What do you mean?” he asked, “How can you not know if you’re guilty or not?” I explained that I didn’t remember anything from that night. The judge said, “The police say they saw you drunk and fighting in the street. Do you think they’re telling the truth?” I replied that they looked fairly honest, at least for policemen, so I guessed I did believe them. “Well then, ” said the judge, “You’d be better off pleading guilty, then, wouldn’t you?”
So that was how I ended up pleading guilty for something I couldn’t remember. The judge then took a look at my record, and noticed that I was already on probation over the crowbar incident. He said, “You do realise that violating your probation means I can impose a custodial sentence?”
At that moment I understood that I was in real trouble. I had been detained overnight a few times in police cells, awaiting court appearances the next morning, but I had never gone to prison for real. Now it looked like it was finally going to happen – and after I had come to Christ!
At that moment the doors of the court opened, and Captain George Hardy from the Salvation Army hostel came in. Someone had told him what was going on. He asked for permission to speak, and explained to the judge how I had given my life to Christ and was trying to turn things around. He told them how I felt called to be a preacher and was planning to finish my schooling and go to Bible College. Thank God the judge listened to his pleas and let me off with a fine. As we left the courtroom both George Hardy and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Six months later the probation service decided that the change in my life was so dramatic and so real that it was a waste of time and money for them to keep supervising me. They applied to another judge and asked him to discharge the probation order early – which he agreed to.
And, up until last week when I sat in court alongside Pastor McConnell, that was the last time I went to court in Belfast. The city certainly has changed for the better since those days, and thank God he has changed my life for the better too!