Open Doors – 60 Years On and Still Smuggling
Imagine not being able to meet with your mates, not being able to visit your local park or café with them for fear of drawing attention to yourselves. Imagine having to meet in secret, in the dark, reading by candlelight in case harsh electric light gives you away. Imagine having to memorise phone numbers, in case the police confiscate your mobile.
That is what life is like for millions of Christians around the world. In many countries, Christianity is forbidden and freedom of religious belief simply does not exist. Being found with a Bible can lead to imprisonment or execution, and being a Christian is literally a matter of life and death. In these places, the Church has been forced underground – to become secret.
For 60 years, Open Doors has been helping persecuted Christians around the world. In 1955 a young man called Andrew went behind the Iron Curtain to discover hidden believers in communist Europe. Very few of the Christians in these places had Bibles, so Brother Andrew, as he became known, started smuggling copies across the border. He was running a huge risk: his car – a blue VW Beetle – drew a lot of attention in lands where Soviet cars were generally the only ones on the road. Gradually others joined him. Today the organisation he founded, Open Doors, supports persecuted Christians in over 50 countries around the globe.
From drugs to Bibles
Bible-smuggling remains a core part of Open Doors’ work. Last year, millions of Bibles in many languages and forms were smuggled to dozens of countries.
Take Pablo,* in Colombia. As a teenager, Pablo did a different kind of smuggling: he drove a truck around Colombia, smuggling cocaine and delivering propaganda for FARC, the communist guerrilla army. Then he was captured by enemies of FARC. To save his own life, he told them everything he knew. Pablo escaped, but he was now on the run.
In this hour of need, he met some Christians who told him about the hope he could find in Jesus. Pablo realised that God had spared his life for a purpose. Pablo gave his life to Christ and promised to serve him.
How, though? The answer came through a pastor who was also an Open Doors volunteer. He encouraged Pablo to take up smuggling again – not smuggling drugs, but Bibles. Since then, ‘Brother Pablo’ has worked with Open Doors, taking shipments of Bibles into the most hazardous regions of Colombia.
It is dangerous work. The gospel message he delivers stands in stark opposition to the violent political doctrines of the guerrilla leaders. For them, Christians are enemies, pastors are military targets, and the Bible is a lethal weapon. There is a price on Pablo’s head, and several times he has had to go into hiding.
But he remains undaunted. “God wants fighters to know and accept him,” he says. “For that I was called – to bring the Good News to people who need the light of the Word.”
As Eddie Lyle of Open Doors says: “We are hiding hope, smuggling it into countries in suitcases, in clothing, in the backs of vans and in other ways I can’t talk about. Many of these places are where the Bible is banned or burned. Places like North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives and Yemen. Yet these places are where the Church continues to grow and the Bible continues to be read. Our smugglers continue to get their cargo through.”
Danger in Korea
Last year alone, Open Doors distributed 3.1 million Bibles and Christian resources. These are often smuggled across borders into North Korea, Afghanistan and other countries where such things are prohibited or difficult to obtain. In North Korea alone, Open Doors distributed over 21,000 Bibles and pieces of literature (usually smuggled) and also increased special radio programmes for secret believers.
Han-Mei,* is a North Korean Christian. One night he was so engrossed in reading his Bible that at first he didn’t hear the knocking at the door. It became a loud thumping. Hurriedly, he hid his Bible and opened the door. Three members of the security forces burst in, demanding to search the house. To his horror, Han-Mei saw one of the men go straight to where his Bible was and pull it out of its secret place. He thought he was going to be killed, but the man just hid the Bible in his own clothes and said to his colleagues, “There’s nothing here.” The three men left. But then the man who took the Bible returned, alone. “Because of the current situation I’m keeping my faith to myself,” he said. “But God the Father guided me to your house yesterday and gave me this opportunity. I’m so grateful for it. I have brought your Bible back.”
Feeding people with hope
Open Doors is about more than Bibles. They train and equip Christians to face persecution and attack. Their staff work with local churches and partner organisations to provide, food, shelter, medical care and trauma care for victims of persecution. They help persecuted communities become self-sufficient through drilling wells. They offer microloans to help Christians forced out of business or jobs to build a sustainable future for themselves and their families.
The most urgent need at the moment is in the Middle East. Open Doors supports some 10,000 families in Iraq. There, families who have been driven out of their homes by Islamic State (IS) are trying to rebuild their lives, to build a future for their children, or even trace loved ones who have been taken captive.
Open Doors works with church leaders like Martin. Martin is a refugee himself: he left the village of Karamles, near Mosul, when it was overrun by IS. He and many others from his village found refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan-controlled Iraq. Despite being just 24, he now helps to look after hundreds of families from his village, all living in exile. He oversees the distribution of the food Open Doors provides through local partners, as well as providing pastoral care.
The bishop who encouraged Martin to become a leader in the church was among the many clergymen killed in Iraq for their faith. Martin knows the path he is choosing to follow is dangerous – but this hasn’t stopped him. In moments of doubt, he says that he imagines that Jesus is standing with him. “I remember that I am called to serve as he has served.”
Open Doors has just launched a £10m appeal worldwide to support these families for another year. If you want to help, go to opendoorsuk.org.
Sixty years on, the issue of persecuted Christians has not gone away. Communism has crumbled, but in its place, militant Islam is threatening to wipe Christianity from the Middle East. There are many challenges, but with the help of its supporters around the world, Open Doors remains committed to supporting the right of individuals to worship freely and openly. Throughout the world, the organisation dedicates itself to supporting Christians to remain in the places where faith costs the most.
There were originally 800 Christian families in Martin’s village. Around 250 of them have left Iraq – and Martin could do the same. But he remains devoted to the people of Karamles. “How can I leave them in this time of crisis?” he asks. “I have decided to follow my calling and stay in Iraq, with them … I am needed here at this moment to feed my people with hope.”
*Names are changed to protect identities.
Why not travel with us and see what we do? Help us with our work
Each year Open Doors organises trips for supporters. Some are to see our work and meet people that our supporters have fundraised for. Others are to smuggle Bibles and resources into areas of need.
For more information, call 01993 460015
From issue 49 - October 2015
Jason Mercier: Poker Face
By Samantha Rea
What came first, poker or faith?
Igrew up going to church all the time, all my family are Christian, but I struggled in my late teenage years. There was never a point when I altogether didn’t believe. It was more that I went through a phase when my belief system wasn’t as strong. I felt like, “I don’t believe the same way you guys do” or “it’s just not for me” or “I’m not really sure”. I just kind of lived my life not thinking about it.
Two years ago, I had some experiences that have led me back to God. It’s personal, but I now have a renewed faith in God and Christianity. I’m much more open to talking about it. I get into conversations fairly frequently about God, Christianity and religion.
Do you ever talk about Christianity at the poker table?
It’s rare to get into discussions or religious debates at the poker table, but when I have done, it’s been very friendly, it’s never been hostile.
I feel like I don’t know enough to debate it. A lot of times, I’ll be left wanting to ask someone, like my dad or my brother, so I’m better prepared. I’ll ask them: “If somebody says this, what do you say back?” They usually have pretty good advice.
I don’t try to convince anyone, because most people you get into conversations with aren’t really the type to get swayed by your opinion. Sometimes I get into arguments – sometimes it’s unavoidable. It starts out like, “Let’s just have a discussion.” Then it turns into: “YOU’RE WRONG.”
In general, I try to not get angry or upset, I just explain my point of view and what I believe. I might ask them a question or two to make them think about what they believe and why they believe it – to question if what they believe is accurate.
A lot of people try to argue that the earth is 4 billion years old, but in the Bible it doesn’t say how old the earth is. Besides, time doesn’t apply to God – God doesn’t operate on time, it’s a man-made instrument.
If someone quotes Nietzsche and says, “God didn’t make man, man invented God,” I say that’s just an opinion. My opinion is that God made man, and all men stem from Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman. That’s from the Bible, so it leads to all sorts of arguments about whether the Bible is accurate – and that’s a whole new debate.
How do your parents feel about you playing poker?
Initially, it was a major issue. When I first started playing, I knew they’d be against it, so I kept it a secret. I played poker with my friends and didn’t tell them.
When I was 18, I started playing online. When my parents found out, it was a big problem and it became an ongoing struggle between us. There were multiple issues – it wasn’t just poker. I was missing classes and flunking out of school, so they were very much against everything I was doing. They told me I couldn’t come home… so I had to figure out what I was going to do and where I was going to live. I stayed with a friend for the summer, then went to my parents and told them I was going to stop playing poker.
I stopped for two months. Then I started playing again, and kept it from my parents. After a while, I couldn’t hide it anymore – I told them I was playing. I said they could kick me out if they wanted to, but I explained why I thought it was different to gambling and why I wanted to keep doing it.
We agreed on some terms. They said as long as I was going to school, getting good grades and working a job, I could play 15 hours a week. But to me, that was a green light to play whenever I wanted to.
I felt like I was lying to them, and not being honest about what I was doing, so it took a little bit before I was finally like, “I gotta tell ’em.”
It wasn’t until I moved out and I was making a very good living from cards, that my parents were much more supportive of it. Once they saw the potential for travelling and playing live tournaments, and understood it as a sport, rather than a casino game, they were much more accepting of it.
What was your parents’ main concern about you playing poker?
My parents were against all gambling. I remember when I was 11 or 12, I made a $10 bet against my uncle on the Super Bowl. I won, but when my parents found out, I got in so much trouble. They made me give the money back to my uncle. They were very much against all forms of gambling.
How were you able to persuade your parents to consider poker as a career?
It took a while for my parents to understand it. They’d been asking me where I was going to university in the fall, and I kept saying, “I don’t know.” I was playing poker, trying to make a living, and my plan was to not go to university. So at this point I had to tell them I’d been playing 50 hours a week, making x amount.
My parents were shocked at how much money I’d made and the potential that was there – I had tournaments lined up in Monte Carlo and the Caribbean. They didn’t know what to say except, “Looks like you’ve got it figured out, so we’re just gonna let you do your thing.” At this point, I bought a place, moved out and started playing full-time. Nine months later, I won the European Poker Tour in San Remo for over a million dollars, so then it was like, “OK, we’re just gonna let him play.”
It took some time for them to come on board, but now my dad follows the live updates when I’m playing. He’ll stay up all night and sweat. My dad’s asked questions, so despite never playing, he has a very good grasp of Texas Hold’em and what happens in tournaments. My mom doesn’t really know what’s going on, she just looks to make sure that I’ve won.
Do your parents ever come and watch you play in tournaments?
Sometimes – they both came to watch me play the $25K in Florida last week, so they were very excited about that. It was the first time they’d seen me win, which is crazy because I’ve won so many tournaments. It was pretty cool for them to be there for a win, but they’ve actually come to Vegas a couple of times for the World Series of Poker and to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
Poker tournaments tend to be held in casinos – how do your parents feel about coming into casinos to watch you play?
I don’t think that’s an issue. My dad used to work in production, so he’s had to work in casinos before. They’re not necessarily against casinos in general, it’s rather that they’ve always viewed gambling as a slippery slope. It’s something you don’t want to do because you don’t want to get addicted to it – work hard for your money, don’t just give it away.
You spend a lot of time travelling on the poker circuit – how often do you manage to go to church?
I go to a non-denominational church about once a month – just because I’m on the road so much. I’ve gone a few times when I’ve been in Vegas and here in Barcelona I’ve been to the Sagrada Familia. It wasn’t for a service – it’s more like a museum – but it was a very beautiful and cool experience.
I think it would be nice if I made a little effort to visit some churches, especially over here in Europe. It’s difficult because I have tournaments to play and I have to fit in sleep. I can be playing poker until one in the morning on a Saturday – then on a Sunday, I have a tournament starting at noon. I’d also have to find a church to go to, so I just try to go when I’m home.
In Christianity it’s not like you have to be at church every Sunday. You should go, if you can, but I think a man has a responsibility to his family and to himself to make a living and sometimes that comes with sacrifices. There’s family time and church time. I only feel guilty for not going on a Sunday if I’m home. If I’m up all night and miss church because I sleep in, then I’d feel guilty, but I don’t feel guilty about not going when I’m on the road.
I can see you’re wearing two crucifixes. Can you tell me about them – do they have a special meaning for you?
They both have special meaning. This smaller one, I bought it off my brother, when I was nine or ten years old. It represents working hard and earning what you want. It represents family to me, because it was my brother’s originally. This larger one, I actually found when I was 15 years old. I was bagging groceries in a parking lot. I should have probably turned it in, but I decided to keep it.
My parents were so strict, I didn’t even show them that I found it when I did, because they’d have made me return it. I ended up finding it in my stuff two years ago. I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.”
It’s crazy I kept it all this time. I only recently started wearing it out. A lot of people keep saying, “Oh, nice Jesus piece.” I just say “Thanks.” For me, anything that brings forth the name of Jesus and encourages people to talk about him, or see that I represent him, I think is a good thing.
How do the people who go to your church feel about you playing poker for a living?
Most people view it as really cool. I haven’t had anyone say they’re against it. If anything, they’re excited to see me and ask me how it’s going.
Is charity an important part of your life? Do you give away a certain amount of your winnings?
Yeah. It’s not exactly charity, but I give to the church that I go to. I usually give a lump sum, once a year, based on how the year’s going for me financially. They use that money to either support the church, or support missions trips or other churches.
Looking to the future, when you get married, is it important to you that it’s to someone who shares your beliefs?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve gone on dates with girls where they’ve told me they think God doesn’t exist, and right away I know that’s not the right person for me. It’s very important to me that my significant other would have the same belief system as me.
Does your Christianity affect your poker – or vice versa?
There can be a lot of temptation in this industry. Gambling, women, drinking, drugs – they’re all prevalent in poker, and avoiding them is sometimes difficult. I don’t cut out alcohol completely, but I’ve gone through periods when I haven’t drunk any. I just try to live as a Christian. Sometimes it’s difficult, but I try my best.
What does living as a Christian mean to you?
The most important thing about being a Christian is having faith. It’s believing that Jesus died on the cross and was brought back to life and is the Son of God. That’s the beginning – the rest is how you live and why you do what you’re doing. It’s about being kind and generous and living the right way – just trying to be how Jesus was.
… but not as we know him. The cast of Spectre explain how the latest 007 movie brings Bond bang up to date.
By Fergus Ewbank
Carving out one of the greatest legacies in British film, it was over 50 years ago that Sean Connery first played James Bond in Dr. No. In the following decades, a handful of actors have shouldered the 007 codename, putting their own spin on Britain’s least secret agent. Since taking on the role in 2005, Daniel Craig has won over audiences and critics alike with his own stamp on the iconic character. His is a postmodern take on Ian Fleming’s Bond; one that embraces the best of the author’s suave spy while adding an air of weariness and conflict. Craig’s Bond is gruffer, meaner and more explosive than those before him. Gone are the cheesy one-liners and shaken martinis of predecessors Connery, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. Instead, with Craig, we see a character pensive and existentially troubled, barely suppressing the rage within him.
The 24th Bond film since Connery’s first face-off with Dr. No, Spectre marks Craig’s fourth and likely final time playing 007. Directed by Skyfall’s Sam Mendes, Spectre marks the return of the eponymous extra-governmental organisation that figured prominently in the early Bond films. The film also stars Italian bombshell Monica Bellucci and French actress Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as two Bond girls who subvert the somewhat dated role women have taken in the franchise thus far. Returning cast members include Ralph Fiennes, taking over as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, while Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz plays the arch-villain Franz Oberhauser.
With Craig on camera and Mendes behind it, the pair’s first outing together in Skyfall as a hugely successful one. Any scepticism towards either of them was soon forgotten as box office figures reached a dizzying $1.1bn – nearly twice that of both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – to become the 12th highest grossing film of all time, and the most successful Bond to date.
As Craig is all too ready to agree, Mendes knows how to put together a good 007 movie. “Sam Mendes was the only guy for the job,” says the actor who, much like the Bond he depicts, doesn’t seem inclined towards overstatement. “He did such a wonderful job on Skyfall,” he continues, “he was the obvious choice to direct the next one.”
An Englishman himself, Mendes grew up with Bond in the same way that Craig did. They both like the same movies and, as both will cheerily add, they like the same bits in those same movies. Given the anticipation that already surrounds the film, Craig’s endorsement of the director could be founded on YouTube trailer views alone. Speaking to him, it seems that his preference for Mendes is based on more personal reasons. Working with the director, Craig has been given the freedom to explore the once camp, detached spy on a deeper level. “What happened in the last movie was a big kick, bringing Sam in,” he explains. “We took the movie in a new direction. We created a language that was different from the other two, but that was faithful to Bond.”
For him, stepping into James Bond’s shoes meant lacing up for a role within one of the most treasured British franchises in film history. By the time the actor made his 007 debut in Casino Royale, Sean, Roger, Timothy and Pierce had already given their interpretation of the spy. He admits, “I couldn’t come in and go, ‘Hmm, Martini,’ or whatever. It’s not who I am.”
While the early Sean Connery films were able to exist within a league of their own, in what was then relatively uncharted space, the secret agent motif now makes for the basis of a fairly commonplace screenwriting template. As such, the Bond of today joins a string of spy film franchises and, thereby, always risks becoming somewhat of a pastiche.
Craig was keen to rethink the formula and take things back to the start. “The original Bond was always in turmoil with himself, always questioning,” he explains. “Maybe he got smoother as the books went on. But going back to the beginning, it’s the way I approach my work. I’m aware it’s a Bond movie and always remains a Bond movie. I’ve just always felt there should be an element of truth or emotion in a movie, so that the audience can hook in. If it’s only action, then it’s not the complete picture.”
While discerning viewers might once have picked up on an occasional storyline or character link in past films, they were, for the most part, unconnected episodes. During Craig’s 007 residency, this has changed and an overarching narrative has begun to emerge. Better thought of as S.P.E.C.T.R.E, the title for his latest film is an anagram for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – a global terrorist organisation that featured heavily in Fleming’s novels and in Dr. No.
Speculation of a return from Blofeld, the infamous cat-stroking villain of that movie, has turned out to be wrong. However, clued-up fans will notice that by going back to the beginning, there exists a link within Fleming’s novels. The villain of Spectre is Franz Oberhauser, the son of Hannes Oberhauser. A friend of Bond’s father, Hannes was an Austrian climbing and ski instructor who briefly became the young Bond’s guardian after the tragic death of his parents – in, no less, an Alpine climbing accident. Death, family ties and characters racked with inner turmoil – it all feels a little Shakespearean. Then again, it’s probably fair to say that the essence of much modern drama has its basis in The Bard.
So often in big-budget action films, the conflict is played out visually – with machine guns and big explosions – which is all well and good, but 24 films in and viewers begin to expect a touch more substance. In Spectre, Craig delivers weight and meaning to his character – there’s still a licence to kill, but it’s accompanied by a significant level of inner turmoil.
Actress Léa Seydoux, who plays Madeleine Swann alongside Bond in the film, agrees. “I think this is what’s new in the film, it’s not what you can expect from a Bond film. It’s more much intense, complex and deep.” She talks not only about Craig’s redefinition of the leading spy but also how this ties in with Mendes’ more modern treatment of the ‘Bond girl’ role. The decision to cast 50-year-old Monica Bellucci does away with Hollywood stigma regarding age and beauty. The oldest actress ever to be cast as a “Bond woman”, as she puts it, Bellucci’s character not only proves that beauty is ageless but also lays bare the misogynistic tendencies that have run a course through the films to date.
As one of the very few love interests to be older than Bond rather than a decade his junior, Bellucci’s part levels the playing field. It serves to suggest that women should take charge of their sensuality, and that being desirable is much more a function of one’s sense of identity than pure physical attractiveness. Admittedly, given that her character, Lucia Sciarra, ultimately succumbs to Bond anyway, there’s still some distance to go but, for Bellucci, it’s a move in the right direction. “I think it’s a sign that women deserve to be respected and considered beautiful at any age. Sensuality and sexiness does not just belong to women in their 20s or 30s,” she says. “We shouldn’t be made to feel as if we are no longer interesting or sexy at 50 as compared to when we’re 30.”
So what about the ‘feisty’ Bond girl played by Seydoux? “Yes, she is different,” says the actress. “My character, she’s something important, she’s Bond’s equal. She doesn’t need Bond, she doesn’t want to be part of his world. She’s not impressed.” As with Bellucci, Seydoux is keen to emphasise how the role of women has shifted in the film. Far from the stereotypical Bond girl, Léa’s character, Madeleine, is not only uninterested in Bond’s protection, but is also the daughter of his enemy.
Like Bond, Madeleine is not without her complexities. When Seydoux took on the part, there was, at that point, no script to be read, and only the bare bones of a plot. Mendes encouraged his cast to develop their characters subjectively, as Craig has done over his past three films. It worked for Seydoux as it did for Craig. “When I act,” she says, pausing for a moment’s thought, “it’s always about the emotions you give. It’s even subjective. It’s a sensation. It’s not I want to play that, play this, it’s much more mysterious in a way.”
The idea of interpretation is an important one when it comes to modern Bond. On the one hand, Mendes, Craig and fellow cast members are faced with the task of creating a contemporary Bond that’s relevant and attuned to the society in which it is set. On the other, the film cannot be allowed to stray too far from its conception. Though Spectre displays a Bond refined for modern viewers, Ian Fleming’s original novels were reading material for director and cast alike. “We always go back to Fleming,” says Craig. “We just do it. You have to.”
For him, Fleming “literally changed the face of movie-making in the 60s. The legacy is incredible”. And in nowhere, perhaps, is that legacy more apparent than Bond’s choice of vehicle. Generations have been left captivated by all manner of kitted-out cars, but it’s the series of Aston Martins that have come to define 007.
Happily for Craig, it’s business as usual in Spectre. “I literally have to pace myself,” he says, describing his return to the seat of the latest car. “I was driving an Aston Martin around Rome and I’d be numb not to get excited about that.” Something for Bond and only Bond, the DB10 car featured in the film will never go into production for public sale. A one-of-a-kind, the model was designed to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary and the equally long relationship with the manufacturer. That relationship began with what is now the most famous Bond car of all, the DB5, and in designing the latest model, the Aston team and Mendes have paid much homage.
A sinister, modern machine, complete with a featherweight carbon fibre skin for added ferocity, the DB10 is a fitting analogy for Craig’s portrayal of his character. In its simple, sleek lines, there’s an undeniable resemblance to Bond’s first machine and, in that, an allusion to the films in which Connery drove it. Through the ancestry of its design, the DB10 traces the lineage of every Bond car before it. As the latest offspring in a bloodline of gizmo-laden vehicles, the DB10 is a particularly fitting celebration of half a century of James Bond films. As with the majority that have come before it, the car has its fair share of weaponry and gadgets – a complex series of hidden guns, and a flamethrower in the boot – handy additions from Bond’s tech-guru Q.
Q’s seemingly infallible ability to predict what Bond is likely to come up against (even before Bond does) remains as important to the storyline as ever. While Craig’s character may well be more complex, more conflicted, perhaps even a little weary, in each of those gadgets exists an opportunity for escape and survival. Though the modern Bond seems to teeter ever closer to breaking point, there is never a moment where the audience believes he won’t survive. How long the franchise will continue is uncertain but, as we reach the release of Spectre, we can be sure of one thing. Through suicidal driving, megalomaniac supervillains and terrifying henchman, Bond will always emerge at the other end – shaken, not stirred.
Escaping From a Prison Without Bars
By Martin Leggatt
I’m talking to Swanny over the telephone – he’s in the corner of a bar enjoying a cold drink and the Wi-Fi connection while escaping the sweltering heat of his Turkish holiday. I’m in a slightly cooler West Sussex. His enthusiasm and obvious sincerity strike rich as we talk about his book Prison Without Bars, which has attracted rave reviews on Amazon, giving it a five-star rating. The first thing that strikes me is how friendly and talkative Swanny is; he’s just a normal bloke – the kind of man you’d enjoy a chat with over a pint in your local. And, boy, does he chat! Where I thought I might run out of questions, Swanny talks for a good 30 minutes before asking if I have any, and then resumes chatting with the same enthusiastic energy. Never mind that I’m interrupting his 50th birthday celebrations.
First interviewed by our editor, Steve Legg, at men’s event The Gathering, Swanny was taking time out from running his tattoo and body piercing parlour in Loughborough to tell his story. Swanny’s life had been transformed from a childhood of being bullied (which is putting it mildly; he endured the type of torture that we’d normal associate with the worst of war criminals), prolonged sexual abuse, through to a young adulthood of drink and gang violence. As is often the case, ‘the hurt go on hurting’ and by the time he turned 17 he was a father, “Not a dad,” he emphasises, and in prison.
By the time he turned 26, Swanny was living on the streets and met a girl, Rachel, who would later become his wife. Still consumed by anger and unable to let go of his horrible past, Swanny would seek solace in drink, pain and self-pity. He was clinically depressed and haunted by his past, but never revealed any of what had happened to Rachel. Throughout this period, Swanny, who would never have professed to being a Christian or having any belief, never once blamed God, as some people do in a “Why are you letting this happen to me?” kind of way. There was no bitterness, just an immense amount of pain. As he says in the book, “The child I had been haunted the man I became.”
Then when he turned 40, Swanny met a man who told him all about Jesus, about how we are all separated from our God and that this creates a loneliness in all of us until we are reunited with God’s perfect love. Suddenly Swanny understood. Things made sense and he became a Christian, started to go to church and, as he puts it, “Perfect love drove away fear.” It was an amazing time. He recalls that he spent a lot of time crying and things inside him changed dramatically, although circumstances around him were not changing. He started to react to things differently; where before he would get angry and seek comfort in drink, he no longer needed to. His explanation: “Jesus fulfilled in a way booze couldn’t.”
When he was 45, another turning point came in Swanny’s life. While praying one day, he believes he distinctly heard from God: “Swanny, write a book. Thousands will be saved by this book.” His initial reaction was, “How can I?” After all, his school years had been ravaged by bullying and abuse; he’d had no education to speak of. It was at this point that David Shearman, a Nottingham-based minister, approached him and told him that he’d had a message from God that Swanny should write a book. Swanny prayed again, “God, I can’t write.” Then he saw a vision of a little boy crying, and that little boy was him. God told him, “Write for that little boy.” That confirmed it, and he started the four-year process of writing Prison Without Bars.
Since publication, countless people have been impacted by reading his book. People travel vast distances to his tattoo parlour just to meet with him and thank him for the book and the freedom that it has released in their own lives, from things such as self-harming, anger and forgiveness. It is, he rightly says, “Amazing stuff” – although Swanny takes no credit for this, all glory is to God. It’s an experience he says he finds “very humbling” and it’s just getting bigger, travelling further afield to places such as Canada, South Africa, America – “people can find anyone in this day and age” – and he gets thousands of random letters and emails of thanks from people impacted.
I ask him what is different about his story among an extensive field of similar books. It was something that he himself was very conscious of when writing the book, and he just wrote it as if chatting over a pint. His publisher, Tim Pettingale, had never handled this kind of book before, but fell in love with its message the first time he read the manuscript. He told Swanny that “God is going to move mountains” with this book, and published it.
A lot of that has to do not only with the heart-breaking honesty of his story, but also the formula that he adopted to write it: “A lot of these testimonies have nine chapters of the writer telling you about the awful things that have happened to them and then the tenth ends abruptly when God saves them.” For him, the structure was always going to be a 50% split, with the first half talking about his old life and the second half about the effect faith has had on him. Swanny isn’t knocking the other books or their authors; it’s just that for him the second part of the story needs telling most. He pauses and emphasises: “I’m transformed, not changed. If you change, then you can change back. I’ve been transformed, me and my family.”
This is where he talks more about what forgiveness can do, and that transforming moment when you realise that we have this separation form Christ that is more painful to us than anything.
I bring up the subject of his profession of tattoo artist, and ask if he’s had any bad experiences. He tells me how he is “covered in them, on his arms, head, face neck, head, feet” and even in his mouth. This brings to mind a quote from his book where he tells his mum that when he grows up he’s “going to be like granddad and have loads of tattoos”. Many of them were done before he came to faith, and he has had all of the less conservative, shall we call them, burnt off; naked ladies and swear words. Occasionally he meets people who tell him he shouldn’t have tats, but what can he do? They are already there and an intrinsic part of who he is. He tells me how he has preached in Westminster Chapel and was greeted by senior minister Greg Haslam with the words, “Welcome, man of God – get in here and preach.”
Many of his clients are Christians who visit him for tattoos, and he’ll always ask them two questions: “What and why?” He asks them to consider what impact it will have, and if their design has any particular spiritual meaning to it. A lot of Christians opt for a gate design to symbolise passing from their old life into God’s perfect love and forgiveness. And for the people who disapprove? “The religious people who quote Leviticus, you can’t argue with them, you’ll just get mixed up with words,” he tells me. Instead he’ll quietly forgive.
However, such incidents are few and far between and, as he says, at least people say it to his face. Such negative experiences are far outweighed by the amount of letters, emails and personal meetings from wives who approach him to thank him for his book, as they have experienced their husbands reading it and coming to faith. He finds this a huge blessing to see many fellow men set free, and set on fire for a new life.
Forgiveness is a huge part of Swanny’s story. For a man who had been a prisoner of such physical and emotional hurt for most of his life to be able to forgive and be free of the pain is incredible. He gets asked by people in similar circumstances, “How can you forgive when that person is dead?” and he replies that you have to; you’re not just forgiving what they have done, but setting yourself free. “If you don’t forgive, will it matter to them? No, but it will have a huge effect on you.”
Self-deprecating to the end, he admits that the book is an emotionally hard-hitting read that deliberately “hits like a left-hook”, but insists that lots of people could’ve written it; we’ve all been on the receiving end of some really bad stuff because sin is all around us all the time and affects us all. However, the book is much more than this; Tim Pettingale nicknamed it a “message of hope”.
“Any last words?” I ask him.
“Forgiveness is what it’s all about,” he replies.
Prison Without Bars by Graham ‘Swanny’ Swann (River Publishing) is available in paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon.
The Bigger Picture
When you first meet a man like Elly Chengo, smart in every sense of the word and full of life and wisdom, you don’t even question how his life began. There’s nothing about him that hints at anything other than a life well lived. But as you get to know him better, you begin to realise that the wisdom tells a story; it’s gained through experience. There is a deep passion in this man to reach the least in the world to give them a chance of a better future. A passion that reflects a life released from poverty.
I met Elly on a recent trip to Kenya with UCB and Compassion, and took some time to find out what has made him the man is.
Can you explain what life was like for you ten years ago?
Ten years ago, my life was totally different; my family was very poor. I felt hopeless and had no determination. I had no belief in myself because of the kind of life we were living as a family. It was not an environment you would desire for a child to grow up in. It was filled with people who were negative and didn’t see much in you. I was surrounded by people who had lost hope and dropped out of school. They hadn’t made much progress so they had lost the bigger picture.
How would you describe that kind of poverty to someone who has never experienced it?
For people out there who think someone can never go hungry, it’s real. For people out there who can’t imagine that some people can’t pay school fees, it’s real. For people out there who don’t believe that some people have no clothes to wear or shoes to put on, it’s real. When you put these things together, that is, in my own view, poverty. That was my life and the life of the people I grew up with.
Poverty is a lack of better choices in life. You are just trying to survive, so you don’t have options. It is through poverty that someone can really give up in life. It is through poverty that someone can give up their God-given talent and skills because they feel they are not worth something.
But something happened to give you hope?
Yes, I was registered into a Compassion project. Since then I have been able to build my self-esteem, determination and the belief that I could be somebody in life. As I look back, I can see the hand of God in that. But the most important person who has really influenced my development was one of the Compassion project workers. I first met her ten years ago. She taught me that through education and by believing the Word of God, I could get out of the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that I found myself in. I have so much gratitude towards her.
Can you share more about your project director and what it was like to be part of Compassion’s sponsorship programme?
I wasn’t doing well, I was only going because I had to. But Elizabeth was firm with me, asking, “What is so good about finishing school without working hard and doing your best?” By the time I finished Form Four I was one of the best students in my class.
She also taught me to believe in myself. She gave me opportunities to grow and lead others and participate in events at the projects. At one point I was the praise and worship leader. She gave me responsibility to take care of people at camps or outings. She shared her life and how she had overcome things.
What have been some of the happiest times of your life?
One of the best times was when I graduated from college with a degree Science in Agricultural Biotechnology. Graduating from my Compassion project aged 22 was amazing too. I looked back at how God had transformed my life.
How has reflecting back on your own transformation affected how you work with other people?
It has made me want to help other people break out of the cycle of poverty. During my internship at college, we were working with communities in the Rift Valley in Kenya. I met a woman who was a widow with six children. Her husband died without leaving her anything and she lived in a mud hut with a leaking roof. Poverty constantly showed her she was not worth something in life. When we came to meet her, she decided to sit 100 metres away from where people were. Because of poverty she felt she could not even mingle with other people.
We empowered that woman economically. Now she has built her own home, has animals and runs a business in the village. When we met her she never had any choice, but now she can go to a market and select what she wants. She can choose clothes and shoes and food. Her children can go to school without worrying about fees. Her choices have come through empowerment; we didn’t give her those things, we just helped her to be able to do it for herself.
So, tell us a bit about your current job and what life is like for you now.
Today I work as a Partnership Facilitator for Compassion which means that I work with a cluster of Compassion projects in the Trans Mara region of Kenya, helping them to reach vulnerable children in their communities.
What I’m looking to do right now is to impact a child’s life. My job is to reach out to children and reach out to church partners and work with them to transform the lives of children.
As a family we are also doing well. We’ve changed in the last ten years. I’m looking to influence more change in my family. I couldn’t have imagined we would be where we are today.
You have come through huge challenges in your life. What would you say to someone else who is struggling at the moment?
I tell this to people whether they have lived in poverty or not. I tell them, tap into what you yourself do best. Do not do things because other people do them. Do the things that God has given you the opportunity to do. Poverty and other challenges in life can hinder people and cause them to overlook opportunities. So I’d say, try to keep your eyes on the bigger picture and be all that you were created to be.
My project director’s name was Elizabeth Mudegu. She made me believe that there is hope in the Word of God. “Put your hope in God,” she told me. “Let God work himself in you. He will work in you and you see he has a big plan for you.”
She taught me to understand the value of education. She taught me that my determination and hard work would get me somewhere; it is not only your teachers but mostly your hard work that will help you. She met me when I was in Secondary School Form Two.
To find out more about the work of Compassion and how you can support other children like Elly, visit compassionuk.org.
From Issue 49 - October 2015
The Beckham Effect
Written By Shaun Curran
It is impossible not to consider David Beckham’s extraordinary life and conclude that he’s the man who has it all. Over two decades in the public eye as elite sportsman, fashion icon, entrepreneur and celebrity influencer, he is a global icon and rare breed of superstar; not only recognisable from Macclesfield to Mumbai, but also with the distinction of having both such disparate luminaries as Prince William and Tom Cruise on his speed dial.
Professionally, he has attained a status bestowed on very few footballers. With Manchester United, his childhood club and the one with who he made his name as part of the Class of 92 youth team, he lived out his dreams, winning six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and one Champions League as part of the club’s historic treble in 1999. He played for England 115 times – 59 as captain – which is a record for an outfield player. In 2003, the year he signed for the Galácticos of Real Madrid (with whom he would win another domestic title) he was awarded an OBE for services to football. It wasn’t just in this country he was appreciated – he was twice voted runner-up in the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1999 and 2001, while his high-profile, multi-million dollar 2007 move to LA Galaxy in the MLS in America ended with him as popular on that side of the Atlantic as this one. Naturally for someone whose success followed him around, another league winner’s medal was added to his collection there too.
Personally, his marriage to Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl whose nickname in the all-conquering, record-breaking girl group handed the couple the distinctive and endearing moniker Posh and Becks, elevated his fame above that of mere sports superstar. Beckham has stated variously over the years that his priority has been to “a strong family man, a strong husband and a strong father”, and with four children he dotes on – Brooklyn, 16, Romeo, 13, Cruz, ten and Harper, four – he remains true to his pledge.
Inevitably, though, the Beckham family is one of the most publicised and discussed in the world, and the increased commercial revenues available to him as a result are staggering. For just one example, during the first season he was in MLS, LA Galaxy sold 300,000 replica jerseys bearing Beckham’s name – more than any other sportsperson in the entirety of American sport that year.
Together, their celebrity has helped him and Victoria create a money-making machine that has transcended their respective professions – David is retired, while Victoria has long since stopped making records – to amass a fortune in excess of £210m. While she has created a successful fashion line, he has made the most of is handsome good looks and sense of style to cash in on lucrative modelling deals and endorsement contracts. With a lifetime deal with Adidas worth over around £100m, signed in his playing days, already in the bag, Beckham has variously been the face of such luxury brands as Armani and Breitling, technology giants Samsung and EA Sports, billboard underwear model for H&M (earning him £7.5m and an incalculable number of gawping looks) and, latterly, a deal with Hong Kong-based fashion empire Global Brands, home to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger among others, to follow in Victoria’s footsteps and design his own clothing line.
Brand Beckham, indeed, and it’s not for nothing that Victoria nicknamed him “Goldenballs”; extending the metaphorical moniker past the sidelines of a football pitch, whatever Beckham touches invariably turns to gold.
But exactly how did this working-class boy from London – who by his own admission couldn’t even spell the word ‘professional’ when writing about his ambition to be a footballer on a school careers form – achieve so much? And what exact role, if any, have his religious and spiritual beliefs aided him along the way?
The first question is much easier to answer than the second. In football circles, it is well known that Beckham practised himself into brilliance, maximising every ounce of his potential through sheer graft. “I never do anything half-heartedly. I will continue to work hard and play hard and do everything I can to be successful, whatever I do. I want to be the best. I think it’s a good way to be,” Beckham said upon retiring from football, and anybody who ever watched Beckham’s unflinching commitment on the pitch, as well as his unswerving dedication to maintaining his cultivated image off it, will know that statement to be true. Few have worked as hard as Beckham for their lot.
But the question of Beckham’s faith is much more difficult to define. He was born on 2 May 1975 in Leytonstone to his mother Sandra Georgina, a hairdresser, and his father David Edward Alan ‘Ted’ Beckham, a kitchen fitter. While he may not have had an overtly religious upbringing – he insists that was the case – one of Beckham’s grandfathers, Joseph West, was Jewish, and Beckham once stated that: “I’ve probably had more contact with Judaism than with any other religion. I used to wear the traditional Jewish skullcaps when I was younger, and I also went along to some Jewish weddings with my grandfather.”
Yet that contradicts Beckham’s previous claims to have attended church regularly as a child – although he never specifically mentioned a denomination – which suggests that Beckham has never had a strong religious conviction. He once famously said that “he wanted his children baptised, although I’m not sure into what religion”, so it is safe to assume there might be some confusion as to where his views lie, if they exist at all. He is, however, adamant that his good friend Tom Cruise has never tried to convert him to the church of Scientology. “No he hasn’t, that isn’t true,” he said in an interview last year.
As befits someone who has spent fortunes on media training, his savviness in interviews means he reveals as much or as little as he sees fit, so it is little wonder people have read so much into the religious imagery present on a number of his many tattoos. Body ink is often a form of outwardly expressing beliefs and values, be that religious, cultural or otherwise, so naturally people have wondered how much Beckham has considered his own artwork. One tattooed Chinese motif translated reads as: “Death and life have determined appointments. Riches and honour depend upon heaven.” Another, depicting Jesus thinking about his death on the cross reads: ‘The Man of Sorrows’ . Other religious-themed tattoos include a crucifix, a guardian angel watching over the names of his children and Jesus being raised from the tomb surrounded by cherubs that represent his children. He has tatted a verse from the Bible’s Song of Songs in Hebrew.
So does his extensive tattoo collection indicate a belief in God? Not necessarily, as he once said: “People look at my tattoos and the majority of them are religious images so people think, ‘Oh, he must be very religious.’ I respect all religions but I’m not a deeply religious person. But I try and live life in the right way, respecting other people. I wasn’t brought up in a religious way but I believe there’s something out there that looks after you.”
Instead of worshipping a specific higher being, it appears that Beckham has taken his lead from religious teachings. He says that such virtues were instilled in him from a young age by his parents and grandparents, virtues that he himself has instilled into his children as they grow up in the most public of circumstances. He once commented: “My parents were always very strict and they gave me the right beliefs in how to treat people. It was very strict and all about morals – I try to pass that on to my own children. I was asked what advice I give my boys about women, and I tell them my granddad used to say ‘you treat everyone with respect, you behave like a gentleman, especially to women, and I think women appreciate that’. I always say that to my boys.”
It is this desire to lead his life in the right way which helped Beckham on the path to being a devout family man. It is clear from many of his public declarations – and again, his tattoos – that he adores his wife and children, and that they remain the cornerstone of his existence. Once invited to describe Victoria to someone who’s never met her, he said: “She’s charming, she’s funny, she’s immensely talented, first with being a Spice Girl and especially now with being a designer. She’s a very committed person. When she wants something she knows what to do to get it.” Yet he pointedly added: “And she’s an amazing mum. That’s her strongest quality for me. Being her husband and the father of her children, there’s nothing better than seeing a woman who is amazing with her children.”
The sanctity of marriage is one Christian belief that Beckham holds true, and the notion that love is an eternal commitment. “We’ve been married for 17 years, it’s an amazing part of our life and we’ve created something with our children, our family, that’s very special, we’ve got four amazing kids,” he said. Those children remain his priority, although he recognises the importance of maintaining a loving relationship with his wife.
He once said: “Dates for Victoria and I are very few and far between – we have four kids so the majority of our time is spent with them and working, but when we do have date night, we don’t need to impress each other too much anymore. It’s always important to spend time with your partner, but the time that you spend with them, you could just go for a walk through the park, just go for dinner. Those moments you spend together are special. When you show each other attention, you need that.”
Yet it tells you all about his commitment to matrimony that Beckham says the most romantic thing he ever did for Victoria was arranging to renew their wedding vows. He said: “It was a whole surprise, Victoria knew nothing about it. I had it all organised. I told her we were going out for lunch and I packed her bag. I had a dress ready for her to change into on the plane.”
It is to Beckham’s credit that he seeks to live in the correct way when his life is so abnormal to most people’s perceptions. But despite his overwhelming levels of notoriety, and the riches he has amassed, Beckham’s only wish is to be remembered not for the fame or fortune, but for the skills that catapulted him into the life he now leads.
“I just want to be remembered as a hard-working footballer,” he said last year. “I want to be remembered firstly as a good and successful footballer because that’s what I’ve done for many years. And then who knows after that?”
Who knows indeed, and when it comes to Beckham’s true religious views, they remain a mystery until he decides to set the record straight once and for all.
In Fear and Faith
Written by Shaun Curran.
Derren Brown’s professional life has been a constant exploration of what is real, and what is not. Throughout a career on TV, on stage and, latterly, on the page, Brown has continually shifted perceptions about his work and its themes to the point where you’re not even sure how you would define what it is he actually does. Is he a magician? Hypnotist? Mentalist? Illusionist? Sceptic? Or just an old-fashioned performer with a couple of neat tricks to wow the audience? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and that is just how Brown precisely constructs it; he revels in the vague and undefined. He has a huge, dedicated following, all addicted to his boundary pushing – and at times controversial – work that has in the past included a live Russian Roulette show, predicting the national lottery numbers and convincing a group of innocent businesspeople to rob a bank at gunpoint.
Aspects of his personal life have been just as fiercely dedicated to questioning what he believes in – be it the battle between good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. Inevitably, this includes matters of faith; a subject that has, for better and worse, defined Brown’s life since his younger years right up until the present day.
In true Brown fashion, the question of his own faith has not been a straightforward one. When he calls Sorted, the illusionist is more than happy to spend time recounting tales from his youth, all of which contributed to his current standing. The succinct version of Brown’s story is that he used to be devoutly religious when he was younger and grew out of it to such an extent that he is now one of the most famous atheists in the country, alongside Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais.
But that would be a far too simplified account of Brown’s transition. To fully understand his path from Christianity to disbelief, one has to go back to his pre-adolescence. Brown was born on 27 February 1971 in Putney, south-west London to mother and father Chris and Bob Brown, the latter of whom was a sports teacher at the private Whitgift School in Croydon that Brown attended from the age of ten. By that stage, Brown was already deeply committed to Christianity, a regular Sunday school attendee, and enjoying the feeling of belonging to something he could believe in.
“I was a proper believer,” he told the Daily Mail. “I’d been to a Sunday school class when I was five and maintained my beliefs for many years. With the self-assurance of the truly naive, I would sit down and tell my friends why they should be Christians.”
Initially, this faith would come as a comfort to him. At Whitgift – “a posh grammar school with peacocks and quadrangles and things,” he laughs – Brown felt an acute displacement and a sense that he was struggling to fit in. Quiet and awkward, the athletic pressures piled on by the school and fellow pupils brought about feelings of unease.
“At school, I was definitely in the wrong crowd,” he admits, albeit recalling a fairly sad time in his life with a touch of his distinctly wry wit. “Not in the cool sense, it was just embarrassing. I was in a group of kids who liked classical music. I didn’t even like classical music! I was just in with the wrong crowd. So that wasn’t great. I wasn’t very sporty but my dad was a sports teacher at the school. And I think if he hadn’t have been I would have got properly bullied. I wasn’t but I was very much intimidated by the sporty crowd and it was a very sporty school.”
Today, his memories echo some of the recent comments he gave The Guardian about his teenage years: “As I grew up, I didn’t go out drinking, wasn’t going to the gym, I didn’t fit into that whole world. That feeling of alienation can turn into envy, and it becomes an issue.” He then mentioned the crux of his issues, “Sexuality is often tied in with something you feel you lack in yourself and look for in others.”
As his adolescence gathered pace, so did his awareness of his own sexuality, and it is only with hindsight that Brown can make sense of what he was feeling, and the impact that had on his faith. He recognises now that a difficult relationship with his father also wasn’t helping matters. “It was tough and unhealthy, the classic thing,” he said to the Daily Mail. “Not getting on with my father, not fitting in with the boys at school, at that age you don’t know whether that happens because you’re gay, or if you’re gay because of them.” He says the uncertainly lasted some time. “For years I was rather embarrassed about it, hoping it would pass, and was basically celibate.”
Though it wasn’t as pronounced and deliberately devious as it may seem looking back, Brown was essentially using his faith to cover up his gay feelings, using it as a shield to deflect the personal questions he was desperately trying to avoid. It also had the desired effect of handing him the readymade selfhood that he was searching for. “Belief becomes part of your identity. And if you feel not very impressive, it’s a good feeling to be able to go, ‘Oh, sorry, could you not make that joke please, because I’m a Christian.’” Brown’s self-deprecation is audible.
Another way to seek the acceptance he craved was to throw himself into the world of magic, which in turn would gradually steer him away from Christianity. Magic had always been a curiosity of Brown’s – “I did have a magic set when I was young and had a free-floating interest” – but it started up again in earnest when Brown went to study Law and German at the University of Bristol. “It became much more serious then,” he reveals.
Suddenly, Brown found that where previously he was ignored, he was now the centre of attention. It was a scenario that fits into the stereotype. “Magicians tend to be kids with no social confidence,’ he told the Mail. ‘You rely on the tricks; hide behind the cards as a way to social acceptance. That was me for many years.”
He was now in a situation where he was lauding power over those who had previously helped cultivate his outsider status. “The people who often responded well to it were the lads, and suddenly I was in the position of a) being quite cool among them, and b) having control of them, which is very different from being intimidated by them. I was suddenly an authority in this world.”
As he began to perform regularly at university, Brown became addicted to both the theory and the exhibition of magic, setting him on the path to fame and fortune. But he admits that it was to be the beginning of the end for his faith. The Christian Union, initially a refuge for Brown, turned against him once they saw early versions of his act, and thought that his attempts at hypnosis were proof he had been possessed by the devil.
“I immediately got this backlash of anger from them,” he told the Mail. “I had people exorcising me during my shows. They really attacked me. I started to see there was a capacity for fear and misunderstanding in the church. Learning hypnosis taught me how suggestion works and studying magic gave me an understanding of how charlatans work.
“So suddenly, when I’d hear my minister saying Tarot cards were the work of the devil, I said to myself, ‘Well, they’re not. There’s no magic happening. I know it isn’t’. So, bit by bit, I began disassembling my religious beliefs.”
By now, Brown was feeling more confident about his sexuality – within himself, at least – and far less of the guilt that had plagued him. Curious, he agreed to go to a church-organised camp that promised people they could ‘cure’ their sexuality – sceptical to begin with, the experience left him unimpressed and more disconnected with his faith than ever.
“I had a friend who was very into that movement and he had heard of a course that people went on,” he told Alan Carr on Chatty Man, “and it’s not uncommon for you to go through a phase where you think ‘maybe it will pass’. So I went along for a day or two with this friend and they had this whole method of ‘curing it’ as they said. I do think some of the psychology is interesting, as sexuality is a complicated thing and I could understand some of what they were saying. But it just doesn’t work, and that is the bit that they were missing. They had this moment where I was asking ‘So, do you no longer feel attracted to people from the same sex?’ and they would say, ‘Well, the Lord has shown me a way of dealing with those feelings when I get them’. And I’d be like, ‘So you still get those feelings? It’s not really worked, has it?’ One guy would go (puts on exaggerated camp accent), ‘The Lord has given me a fabulous wife!’ It just doesn’t work.”
It was the final nail in the coffin, and for Brown magic had now completely replaced religion – today, his official website proudly states: “I am an atheist and a sceptic of all things paranormal. As an atheist, I merely do not believe, which is not the same as having an anti-theist agenda.”
Professionally, the decision was one of the best he ever made. By honing his act and becoming ever more daring with his technique and performances, he became the most famous exponent of illusion in a generation, and his nationwide tours are still phenomenally popular. Still, faith has pervaded his work – most famously on his 2012 TV show Fear and Faith, which examined the psychology of religious belief and in which he conducted a ‘Conversion Experience’ to induce a religious experience in a self-identified non-believer.
Emboldened by fame, Brown eventually came out at the height of his popularity during his 30s. After decades of bottling up his feelings, worrying about what others would think and using religion to hide the truth, the experience was nowhere near as traumatic as Brown had always envisaged.
“With something like that, if you carry something around with you for a long time that you make into a big secret, you turn it into a much bigger thing that it actually is!” he laughs, thinking back. “What you think other people are going to think doesn’t bear relation to what they actually do and what is interesting is someone trying to hide something that is actually quite self-evident – that’s much more interesting to people than who you fancy. Afterwards you think, ‘Oh why on earth did I turn this into such a big deal?’ It seems less so nowadays than years ago, it is a little easier now but what it does do is make you realise that – I think David Foster Wallace said it – you’d be a lot less worried about what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do! That’s what it taught me, in the nicest way, other people don’t really care,” he says earnestly.
It is a lesson that he preaches constantly. When asked what piece of advice he would give to his younger self, Brown replied, “There’s no God and no one cares if you’re gay.” It has been an arduous, personally taxing journey for the master of magic to get to that point – and rightly or wrongly, there appears to be no chance of him turning back any time soon.
Derren Brown is currently touring the UK with his new show, ‘Miracle’. Tickets and info at derrenbrown.co.uk.
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