Grappling with God by Gareth Thompson
My childhood was always a struggle to survive. My parents divorced when I was six and after this my mum hit the drink hard, she became abusive and unhinged. My dad wasn’t to be seen at all. I would often have to take my two younger brothers to school, feed them, and find my mum in pubs to get the house keys from her. During this time my only escape was staying with my grandmother on a Friday night. She was a devoted Catholic and had a huge influence on me. She often prayed with me and gave me the strength to get through the week.
My mum would go out on weekends and leave us with random people. One of my male cousins would babysit for us. For over a year, between the ages of seven and eight, he would take advantage of his position and sexually abused me whenever he would babysit. This made me withdrawn, very meek and placid. I was confused, hurt and scared. I didn’t know what to do, how to stop it. I finally plucked up the courage to tell my mum one night. This was 11 November 1995. I remember clearly because of the poppies that everyone was wearing. That night I was taken to the hospital, examined, and my abuser was arrested. Shortly after, there was a trial and once it was all out in the open I thought things would improve. My mum took it really hard, and I was bullied at school.
At the age of 15, I found myself homeless after my mum threw me out into the world to “fend for myself”. I had got a job as a window cleaner so my mum had a change in her benefits, so she kicked me out. I hadn’t finished school so had no GCSEs. I lost my job quickly and spent the next eight weeks sleeping in a skip before finding myself at Bradford Foyer, a homeless hostel. While there I met my future wife. We had a far from perfect relationship. After moving in together back in my hometown of Keighley, I bounced between jobs, racked up some debts and wasn’t the ideal partner. I see now in hindsight, how my life up until that point was affecting the way I dealt with conflict, how I showed love and how I always wanted to be seen as strong, not showing any weakness. I would hide debts; I would do stupid things to get attention and I would be very selfish.
We came to Bradford one day to get some piercings and bumped into one of her old friends and her husband, and we hung out for a few weekends. Then they invited us to church with them. Church wasn’t alien to me, I had been with my grandmother as a kid. But this church was different – no pews, no organ. A live band, open space to worship and dance, you could interact. During the service, I felt my heart ripped open in the worship. I caught myself crying and a real sense of home and love that I had never felt before came over me. I decided at that point to give this a shot. I gave my life to Christ and things moved pretty quickly. This was November 2010, I was married shortly after, in March 2011. My grandmother attended the wedding; she was smiling all the way through but was very ill. She had dementia and passed away that night, which was a huge blow. I almost instantly retreated from God, feeling hurt and blaming him for her death. I thought things were supposed to be better once you were a Christian. I wasn’t looking at things the right way.
For the first year of my walk with God, I wasn’t challenged, changed, mentored, disciple – just left to get on with it. This all changed when my wife left me for another man. I became depressed, lost my job and struggled with drink. I found myself at rock bottom again.
At this point, Dave Kendall from Christians Against Poverty stepped up and took me on a journey of forgiveness, grace and finding my identity in Christ as a son of God. He spent time with me, prayed with me, was there to listen and encourage, rebuke and challenge. I had managed to find a job, and I became debt-free through Christians Against Poverty (CAP). I was praying through my journey of forgiveness, and found myself stuck on the issue of abuse. I couldn’t do it to the guy’s face; as last I knew, he was in prison and I didn’t know where he was. So, I asked God to do a work and help me out with this.
God really has a sense of humour, as he walked into my work the next day! I was working on the tills at CeX and I tried my best to avoid him, taking my time with orders … But God had other plans. Here I was, face-to-face with the man who caused me so much pain, and changed the course of my life forever. I had two choices – make moves or make excuses.
I handed him his DVDs, looked him in the eyes and said, “I forgive you.”
From that moment on, I started taking God seriously. When I pray now, I expect the unexpected. I’m ready for anything and I always ‘make a move’.
So many ‘God moments’ led to this, and after a few months I had restored relationships with my mum, had found my dad, my wife and I got back together, I started working at CAP – everything was on the up.
Another affair and separation from my wife led me to find a church that fit me, not us. The lessons I learned previously made this change easier to navigate. I found The Light Church and God has released me to serve and get stuck into the life of this amazing church and its family.
I’m now a CAP centre manager, running both a job club and a debt centre, helping those who are where I was all those years ago, sharing my story and seeing people coming to Christ, growing in him, working towards going debt-free and finding employment. I feel like a proud dad, loving the unlovable and being the voice of the voiceless, showing them God’s love, grace and mercy and being a light in the darkness for them.
I have been a wrestler throughout this journey and it has always been a great release for me. At first it was an outlet for my frustrations and a way to feed my ego. But once I got serious with God, that all changed. I chose the name ‘Gareth Angel’ to reflect my faith and having grown with Jesus I’ve also evolved as a character, quoting Scripture, praying before my matches and doing my best to be a positive role model and ambassador for Christ. Angel is just me, but turned up to 11.
I always offer to pray with my opponents before we go out and I’m always reading my Bible and offering an ear to my peers. I have ‘God chats’ all the time. Wrestling is a crazy place, full of people from varying backgrounds and faiths. But it is also rife with hurting people, addictions, failed relationships, brokenness, huge egos, politics, backstabbing and people searching for love and acceptance. I’ve seen it all.
The wrestling world is one of my mission fields. I hope to bring what I’ve found in Christ to the men and women of the ‘squared circle’ through love, compassion, being a good example and walking life with them.
I also hope to show Jesus to the crowds. My T-shirts say: ‘Pray, Eat, Wrestle, Repeat’. There are kids wearing those T-shirts, praying with me during my entrance. My fans are called the Angel Army and I share the gospel and try to be a faith-filled role model, as they see me as a hero. The kids at my church always want to play-fight with me, but I know they are watching me worship, pray and serve our community.
I know that everything I do will impact them. So as a leader, a male influence, I must be consistent and encourage them to grow in faith, just as I have.
I’m still a work in progress, as we all are, but if there is one thing I have learned, it is that there is hope for us all and with Jesus, anything is possible.
I never imagined that I would be performing in front of crowds, with Jesus in my heart, and be leading others to know him. I am blessed beyond my wildest dreams and thank you, Jesus, for not giving up on me.
Building a Wall of Answered Prayer by Peter Wooding
“This is the first time I’ve built a national landmark, so I feel like I’m making it up as I go along,” this tall but modest business leader tells me.
But Richard Gamble, who is also a man of faith – you have to be if you support Leicester City – explains that Donald Trump has nothing to do with his plans to build this wall made up of a million bricks.
“This Wall of Answered Prayer will be built on the side of a motorway like the Angel of the North, which has something like 50,000 people drive past it every day. Each of the million bricks will represent a story where somebody has prayed to Jesus and this is the story of what happened after they prayed and what impact it had on their lives.”
Richard says his journey to embark on this venture began 13 years ago:
“I remember waking up one morning and felt God tell me that I should carry a cross around Leicestershire to help people think about Jesus during Easter. During that time, we worked out that 250,000 saw what I would now describe as public piece of art. At the moment I thought, ‘This is what I needed to give my life to’, so I asked God what I should do next. Then an image just flashed through my mind of a million-brick wall, which I’ve learned is the way God speaks to me.
“For the next 11 years I just didn’t know where to start until I met an architect who presented the idea of doing a design competition, and that was the piece in the puzzle I was missing.”
Two years ago, when they finally launched this campaign, he says the response around the world was amazing:
“We ran a global competition in partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects and we had 133 entries from 24 countries from every continent. We then narrowed that down now to five concept designs picked by an expert panel of judges, civil engineers, architects, some politicians and a few celebrities.
“What we need to do next is finalise the land and the architects will take the design and fit that in with the landscape and then hopefully we will be able to announce what it’s going to look like and where it’s going to be in mid-2018.”
Despite the success of the design competition, Richard says one of the biggest challenges was launching a kick-start campaign to get some funding off the ground:
“It was an incredibly hard process because in my naivety I thought everyone [would think] it would be wonderful and get onboard. We launched it on Clare Balding’s show on Radio 2. But within hours I knew we weren’t going to hit the target and that was pretty difficult to take, and I felt so embarrassed that I’d let God down. We had aimed to raise £45,000 over 40 days.
“With four days to go I still needed £22,500. I felt God tell me to stop everything – marketing, emails, text and just stop and pray. I … felt at peace and thought, ‘If we hit target I’ll be thrilled, but I’ll also be thrilled if we don’t because I won’t have to do this anymore!’
“Then without any marketing we started getting donations from Spain and Croatia and Japan and Australia, and we hit our target with a day to spare. So that was a wonderful confirmation for me I was doing the right thing.”
Richard explains more about what how they plan to use some cutting-edge technology to achieve the impact they hope to have on people who visit the wall.
“You’ll be able to put your phone up against a brick and your phone will light up and through an app tell you the story that bricks represents, either in written word or in audio or video.
“But for those wondering how you’ll reach some of the bricks, as some of the designs are 150ft high, we’ll have tourist binoculars where you can zoom in on a brick and in the same way it will light up and tell you the answered prayer.“We also want people to be able to go through the database of stories. We all go through storms in life and the idea is, maybe you’re going through loneliness or a marriage break-up or gambling addiction or drink or a health issue. Whatever it is, you’ll be able to type in that issue on a website and you’ll see all the different stories that are similar to yours.
“And we hope that will be an encouragement for people to try and get to know God and see if he can help them too, because I believe he can.”
Richard says one of those bricks will represent his own personal answer to prayer, including from one of the biggest physical challenges he ever faced over the span of two decades:
“I was diagnosed in my early teens with ankylosing spondylitis which fuses your spine together to become hunchback and no flexibility. I prayed possibly more than a thousand times that God would heal that over 20 years. I could feel it crawling up my neck. I was waking up in the night with my ribcage in … a fierce spasm where I was unable to breathe for a few seconds but it felt like ages.
“A doctor told me my back was like a car in a traffic jam, and ‘we can give you medicine to slow the car down but when the car gets to the end of the road, you’re screwed’. And I came out of that meeting quite angry and I just decided I wasn’t going to accept those words over my life. I went for prayer again and felt heat go through my spine and later went for an MRI scan and went back to the doctor and he said it had stopped. Now I can pick up my kids and play with them and do more household chores… which is not ideal!”
Richard went on to explain the remarkable way they are moving towards establishing the right land for this national landmark:
“The next step is getting the land. We went to Bethel Church in California with my wife and they didn’t know who we were or what we were doing, and a woman came to us and said, ‘I believe God has got some heavenly land for you.’ Then we went back to the UK and we’ve got a team of people praying for this project, and one of them felt God tell them something that led to the name of a dental practice, and above that building was a motorway and above that was a piece of land.
“Two weeks previously I hadn’t told anyone that I’d emailed the person who owned that land. Then I met a Christian landowner who told me that four months before God had spoken to me about this vision he had felt God speak to him about starting a trust fund, and one of its aims was to support people who wanted to build physical structures like the Angel of the North that represented Jesus. You can’t make that up.”
Richard concluded by describing the kind of scenario he hopes will impact people when they visit the Wall of Answered Prayer:
“I imagine a couple driving along a motorway, who’ve just met with the doctor who has given them a really bad diagnosis, and they don’t know where to turn. They don’t know what to do and they see this massive structure and maybe they pull in and have a look, and maybe they sit somewhere to try and work out what’s happening. But then they find out what this is about. They then type in the diagnosis that the doctor has given them, and they find maybe 10,000 similar stories of experts who’ve been overruled by God being miraculous and alive and active in our lives.
“Like so many other visitors I’d like people to be a little awestruck and go ‘wow’ and want to explore it further and try and understand what it’s all about. A piece of public art is supposed to provoke this discussion and instigate thought processes [so people can] weigh up what they think about it. When people find out it’s about a million answered prayers, then I hope [they] will consider that. Some people will think it’s a load of rubbish, but at least they’ll have had some time to consider whether they believe there’s a God or not.”
To find out more go to: www.wall.org.uk
Billy the Whizz by Stuart Weir
Viliami Vunipola – generally known as “Billy” – was born in Australia of Tongan parents but is now very much part of the England Rugby set-up for the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup. The family moved to the UK when Billy was about six and his father Fe’ao Vunipola played for Pontypool and Pontypridd, as well as representing Tonga in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups.
As Billy’s career has progressed, the family values he grew up with have remained important to him: “My mum and dad are the biggest influences on us staying grounded, especially my mum. She always thinks that a setback is something that makes you stronger and something that is there to help you get better. She’ll always say we’ve done well but she always put at the end, ‘Thank God’ as it’s not our doing, it’s someone else’s.
“I never ask that we win or that I play well, I just pray for protection, I think that’s the biggest thing. Just that I would have strength and energy to do not only myself proud but my family and everyone else proud. Then I just play the game.”Billy played for England at Under 18 and Under 20 level as well as the England Saxons (England B) before he gained his first senior cap in 2013, when he was selected for the England summer tour of South America.
On that tour Billy scored for an England XV against a South American XV in Uruguay and scored an unlikely three tries in six minutes against CONSUR. His international debut came against Argentina where he came off the bench to score a try.
While still at school he was signed by the London Wasps Academy, progressing into the first team in the 2011-12 season. After two seasons at Wasps he signed for London rivals Saracens and has been part of the very successful Saracens teams. In 2013-14, Billy’s first season with Saracens, they finished top of the Aviva League table but lost the Premiership play-off final to Northampton Saints 20-24 after the game went into extra time.
The same year, Saracens also reached the final of the European Club trophy, the Heineken Cup, where they lost out to Toulon with Jonny Wilkinson kicking 13 points – two penalties, two conversions and a drop goal.
In the season which has just ended, Saracens could only finish fourth in the Aviva Premiership but made amends by reaching the Premiership play-off final where they beat Bath 28-16 to become champions.
They reached the quarter-final of the European Cup – the new name for the revamped European club competition, meeting ASM Clermont Auvergne in France. They went to Clermont with high hopes, having beaten the French team 46-6 in the previous year’s semi-final, but this year’s encounter was an altogether closer affair. A powerful drive by Billy Vunipola created the chance for Charlie Hodgson to land a superb drop goal, which gave Saracens the first points of the game. Saracens led 6-3 at half-time before Wesley Fofana scored the only try of the game. An Owen Farrell penalty in 65 minutes reduced Clemont’s lead to one point at 10-9 but the only additional score was a Brock James penalty for Clermont to seal their 13-9 victory.
Billy has bitter memories of that defeat: “When we lost the game to Clermont … I was asking myself, ‘Why don’t I ever win any trophies?’ I prayed a lot and I talked to my mum – who is a minister herself – about it. She just says that if we become driven by trophies and winning and things like that then our whole life will just change. They become our idols. And that’s what God doesn’t want for us – to have idols and for us to follow things and not him. That opened my eyes up a lot, but also the setbacks with England and stuff like that was really tough because all the media would be on my back. I was asking myself: ‘There are 15 other players, why are they blaming me?’ There was something bigger to it.
“I came back stronger … because I went back to my faith and I went back to what we’d been taught all our lives, that whenever you’re playing, whatever you’re doing, whenever you’ve just woken up just say ‘Thank you’ to God. Everything we … have – or I feel like everything that I have right now – has been given to me. Even my talent is a gift and I know I have to work on it but someone higher up has given it to me, so I just have to be thankful for everything …”After his successful tour of Argentina in 2013, Billy held his place in coach Stuart Lancaster’s squad, gaining 17 caps to the end of the 2014-15 season. This year he scored Six Nations tries against Italy and France.
In his rugby career, Billy has found himself following in the footsteps of his brother, Mako – nearly two years older. When Billy got in the England Under 18 and Under 20s team, Mako had already been there. When he signed for Saracens in 2013, Mako had been there since 2011. And when he was called into the full England squad, he saw a familiar face – Mako had been an England player for a year.
The brothers enjoy playing in the same team. As Billy puts it, “It’s quite funny because sometimes I get annoyed and my brother cools me down and then he gets annoyed and I tell him to calm down. We tend not to shout at each other, we kind of just expect each other to work hard, then everything else just comes.” When the two brothers play together for England on a Sunday, it can, however cause problems for their Methodist minister mother, Reverend Iesinga Vunipola, who has other Sunday duties. She told The Daily Telegraph, “A part of me is saying I should be there for my sons because they want me to be. But Sunday is the day I would rather not be anywhere but with the church.” She added the mother’s dilemma: “You know, I can’t really enjoy it when they play because I don’t want to see them hurt.”
The Christian faith that Billy grew up in remains a guiding influence in his life, including his rugby: “Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person, a more confident person. Not arrogant, but just knowing that whatever I … try or [attempt] to do, even if it doesn’t come off, I’ll always have God or Jesus to lean back on, and I know if it didn’t go my way there must be a reason. There is always a reason. You know you can’t win every game and it is tough but my faith helps me with that, because there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games … In reading all of Jesus’ stuff or stories … he is very mild-mannered. Whenever he is asked a question [and] they try and trick him, he always answer in a very calm way – that is … a great example [for me] to be like that.” The Vunipola brothers will be at the heart of England’s Rugby World Cup challenge this autumn. They will be giving their all to the cause. Billy also recognises that there is life beyond rugby. “Obviously the rugby is there but you’ve got your whole life to live after that. I would like people to think that I was a cool guy, but humble enough to take on criticism, take on other people’s ideas and also just a man of God.” It seems a good balance to me.
Article by Stuart Weir and edited for Sorted. Quotations from Billy Vunipola are from an interview with David Stretton-Downes on behalf of Engage 2015, a cross-denominational campaign set up to help UK churches engage in mission and inspire legacy during and after Rugby World Cup 2015. Follow @Engage2015 or visit www.engagemediahub.com to watch the full interview.
The Top Man Caves
The guys at WhatShed know how in this crazy world of ours, a guy having his own little space is something that most men really want. A man cave. It is something that all men aspire to have and some are lucky enough to make it happen. No matter if it is filled with booze, video games, a huge TV, sports memorabilia or a super-secret hidden area so they can hide from the wife when they have accidently trod mud through the house. To help give you some ideas, inspiration and just some general pointers on the kind of things you can do with your man cave, WhatShed have scoured the internet and found these awesome man caves.
MAN CAVE 1: Spurs Dream Room
First man cave we have is from a gentleman called Darren Stamp who is a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan and spent over four years of his life putting his man cave together. With a fully stocked bar, pool table and Tottenham Hotspur memorabilia all over the place, this is one really cool man cave. We really like the blue lighting that he has used on the bar as it really looks great and goes well with the Spurs theme. One of the things that is great about this man cave is not just all the toys, like the big TV and table football, it is the way he has managed to give it a really classy look too. Going the classy and elegant way as well as being fun is great for getting the other half on board.
Man Cave 2: A Simple but Cool Guys’ Lodge
Next up we have this fantastic barn conversion from Ben Williamson who hails from Essex. He took a normal shed and converted it into a fun and relaxing place for him to escape to. Sometimes less is more and we really like the rather laid-back and simple look that he has gone for with this man cave. He has a pool table, dartboard and a tremendous wooden bar. Sometimes blokes can really overload their man cave to the point where moving around is hard to do, but we feel this one here is nice and spacious and would be perfect to have the guys round for a few beers and a couple of games of pool.
MAN CAVE 3: To Boldly Go Where No Man Cave Has Gone Before
Tony Alleyne from the USA is one of the biggest Star Trek fans in the world. Just how big a Star Trek fan is he? Well, he designed his man cave all around it. This is the kind of thing you have to repeatedly look at as you would swear it is a set from an upcoming Star Trek movie. Tony really did an incredible job in making this look like a room (or should we say bridge) from the Enterprise. We love how some people have these themed man caves and Tony’s was one of the best we have ever seen. What is sad is that Tony went through a divorce and had to sell of most of his Star Trek collection to pay off his bills. Still, the images remain online to inspire you that you can make your dream man cave, and also to make sure you keep your wife happy.
MAN CAVE 4: Pinball Wizard
Here we have Adam Wells from Crawley who is a lifelong pinball and video game fan. Making a games room seems to be one of the ‘in things’ when it comes to man caves these days. But we think it is really cool how it is mainly pinball machines that Adam has filled his man cave with. It is not just the great selection of pinball machines that he has in his man cave that makes us green with envy. It is also the very smart way he has decorated it. He has pinball-inspired decorations on the wall, such as that awesome Iron Man back box light he has made. This is the kind of place we would love to spend a few hours, but if Andy does not have the machines set on free play we may have to borrow a few 50 pences.
MAN CAVE 5: A Retro Arcade of Awesomeness
One of the things we really love about Mat Corne’s man cave in Stoke is just how classic it is. Mat is a retro gamer who loves old consoles, but more importantly you can tell he has a love for the old arcades, not the junk that is classed as an arcade these days. This is what drove Mat to make this epic games room. He loves to host game nights here for friends and family, and he has a big score board to show who is the best player. As he has such an amazing mix of games, ranging from fighting games, shooting games and driving games, there is something here for everyone. While the games themselves are really cool, we must say we think the retro posters and video game memorabilia are also a very nice finishing touch and show you that it is the little details that can help finish off a man cave.
MAN CAVE 6: Enter the Bat Cave
There are few Bruce Waynes in training who have built their very own Bat Caves, but we think there is something really cool about Darren Wilson from the USA’s Bat Cave. Darren actually had to give up creative control on the rest of the house to be able to do this, but it was well worth the trade and something to consider if you are having a hard time convincing your better half you need a man cave. Darren has over 20 grand’s worth of Batman memorabilia and wanted a cool space to keep it. Rather than just go for a standard man cave with some Batman posters, he literally created himself a Bat Cave. This is awesome and we really love how he has used papier mâché for the roof to really make it look like a Bat Cave.
MAN CAVE 7: Home Theatre & Bar
We found this fantastic man cave on YouTube by a YouTuber called Kobievids from the USA. This is a really classic kind of man cave. A man cave that is not overly huge, but it has all the things you need to relax after a hard day’s work. First thing that catches our eye is the bar. He has done an amazing job in really making sure his bar has that old-school pub kind of look to it. Plus, like any good pub, you can see there is a ton of great booze behind the bar. He has a large projector screen for movies and live sport and a nice big comfortable sofa. If you want a man cave that is not over the top, affordable and is not going to require the DIY skill of Bob the Builder, then this is a man cave that you should use as your inspiration.
MAN CAVE 8: A Pub in Your Own Home
Many man caves will have a bar, but Simon Randall went one step further and made a full-on pub. That is right, he has all the things that you would expect in a pub. There is, of course, a fully stocked bar, pool table, dartboard, large TV, juke box and everything else you would need for a rocking good night. It is not just the stuff that is in here, it is the way Simon has organised and decorated it. There is all kinds of cool memorabilia over the place, a special big thumbs-up goes to that fantastic Budweiser light over the pool table. There is just a ton of little details all over this man cave and we would love to get in there and spend a few hours checking them all out. While helping ourselves to some of the good stuff behind the bar, of course.
MAN CAVE 9: Not a Man Cave, but a Couple Cave
This is a great concept as it is not just a man cave, it is a couple cave, as it was designed by Mark and Siobhan Hughes from Scotland. They did a really great job with this and we love the elegant look of it. They, of course, have some nice comfy seats and a good TV, but we must say that silver and black pool table is especially eye-catching. But that is not the only thing that makes this such a great man cave. Mark and Siobhan made sure they had a nice decking area just outside the cave. This way when the weather is good they can crack open those large doors, let in some fresh air and actually be able to have some summer fun in their couple cave as well.
MAN CAVE 10: A Cinema in Your Garden
OK, so calling this a ‘man cave’ is a stretch, but we felt we had to include this on this list, as ‘epic’ is the only word to describe this. Anderson Jones made national news when he unveiled his cinema that he built in his back garden. Not just a man cave with a huge screen, but a full-on cinema with a concession stand, toilet and a proper projector. This thing here is just incredible and while it cost him a fortune to do, we feel that it is one of the most impressive man cave-type structures we have ever seen. It also serves as great inspiration to you guys looking to build your own man cave that no dream is too big.
January Love - By Rob Parsons
If the course of married life has seasons, then most begin in summer. They are days filled with warmth when we not only say we are in love, but we feel in love. Of course, to love in summer is relatively easy, but marriages that are to last have a much harsher test ahead: it is the challenge of ‘January love’– of surviving the winter of our relationship.
Just as the first chill winds of autumn may catch us by surprise, so a change in the climate of a relationship can be devastating. Whereas our relationship in summer was characterised by warm breezes, we find that biting winds now test our love. These are dark and cold days, but there is no relationship that does not, at one time or another, have to love in January – times when we have to love our partner not ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’.
Marriages break up, relationships fail – those things are a fact of life. But it’s also a fact that we will never find a lasting relationship with anybody unless we are ready at some time to fight to keep our love alive against the odds – to love in January.
I remember counselling a couple in their mid-20s; they had a baby girl aged six months and were about to divorce. I asked the man why he wanted to divorce his wife. He said, “I don’t feel in love anymore.”
As he spoke, I looked at the little bundle being cradled in his wife’s arm, the first man in her life about to walk out on her forever. I said, “Did nobody tell you when you married that there will be times when that happens – you won’t feel in love, or the feeling of love will diminish? Did nobody warn you that love that lasts, does so by loving – at least for a time – with not the heart, but the will? Did nobody say that unless you understand this, you are doomed to move from relationship to relationship at the mercy of your feelings?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No,” he said. “Nobody told me that.”
Nobody had told him this simple truth and yet grasping this principle would allow his and many relationships that fall at the first hurdle to at least have a chance of surviving. You will not keep your family together if a prerequisite is that you and your partner always feel in love with each other.
Couples that stay together are prepared to go through periods in their relationship where commitment, responsibility, and sometimes “what’s best for the children” is what keeps their relationship going. “For the sake of the kids” is not always the right reason to stay together, but it’s still a good reason. Of course, none of us want to live our whole lives loving our partner through gritted teeth, but there are thousands of couples who tried again, perhaps “for the sake of the kids”, and in the process found again a love they’d thought was gone forever.
In almost every marriage there will come a time when the ‘feeling’ of love is at a very low ebb. Such times may creep up on us over the years, or they may be linked to specific strains in our relationship – perhaps following the birth of a child, financial pressure, sickness, or redundancy, when the self-esteem of one partner is very low. It’s at this point that something sometimes enters the relationship that, in its ability to destroy families, is in a league of its own: the affair.
The price tag reads…
I’ve seen all kinds of things destroy families. But I believe that nothing comes close to the affair for having the ability so quickly and with such surgical skill to decimate families – and often for so little. It’s as if the affair whispers: “Trust me. I know you’ve heard what this can do to families, but it will be different for you. Just take the next step.”
Of course, the end results of the affair can vary. Some people find new and fulfilling relationships, and some feel cheated after just a few days, but in my experience those involved in an affair exhibit the same two characteristics time and time again.
The first is what somebody called “a period of temporary insanity”. During this time people act totally out of character. They set aside previously held personal or religious beliefs. They sometimes begin to dress differently – perhaps younger, more daring –and almost everything in their lives – children, job, home – comes second to the sheer thrill of this affair.
During this period, people often ‘rewrite’ the story of their lives. They say things such as, “We were so young when we got married – we didn’t really know what we were doing”, “We’ve never really been happy”, “I was always dissatisfied with our relationship”. It’s not necessarily that these things aren’t true, or that they haven’t gone through difficult times, but the trick of the affair is that it manages to wipe out every memory of genuine love and happiness in the relationship that ever existed.
If that’s the first characteristic of affairs, then the second always follows. It may come within a few weeks, or it could take a few years to happen, but there is no exception. It’s the moment when reality kicks in. For a while, everything in the new relationship is thrilling and fun, but eventually the excitement dies and the couple discover that even in their new love nest the taps still leak, the bills still need paying, and babies still wake up crying in the middle of the night. In short, they discover that “the other man’s grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing”.
The shock of this second stage is often cataclysmic. It’s as if the cost at the beginning of the affair is negligible, but quickly changes. In the early stages the price is rarely on the ticket; in fact, at the beginning, the price tag reads, “Free”. There’s no harm in what is happening – some flirting, a little time spent together. But as the affair progresses, it’s as if there’s somebody at the back of the store changing the price ticket because suddenly it’s more expensive. It now calls for a little deceit – “I’ll be home a bit later on Tuesday, darling.” But, hey, even if the price is getting higher, the rewards are fantastic – fun, almost teenage-like conversation, incredible sex. They say to themselves, “This is the person I should have married.”
Then one day, the couple walks into the shop and the price tag has changed for the last time. Now it reads: “Everything”. They gasp when they see it. They protest that they couldn’t possibly pay it without losing almost everything they’ve ever loved – their husband, their wife, their kids, maybe their friends and wider family, and perhaps their home or even their job.
I get angry listening to so-called experts talk about affairs being good for a marriage. Can marriages recover from affairs? Yes, of course. Can those marriages be stronger than they were before? Yes, without doubt. But the affair is a breach of trust so great that it tears at the very heart of a relationship, and although the love may return, it may take a long time for trust to be restored.
And affairs are bad for kids. Over the years I have listened to the stories of many people who have experienced family break-up, but one small boy sticks out in my mind. He was ten years old and his father had just left his mother. He was sitting on a step outside his house, looked up and said, “My father doesn’t love my mother anymore and he has left us now. What does a kid do?”
Breaking up is hard on everyone
But it’s not just young children who feel this experience so deeply. Laura Telfer, a Relate counsellor for 18 years, says that splitting up when the children are older can seem like an attractive option: “There is definitely a susceptible time when the children leave home when all possibilities seem open. But it does not make the unexpected desertion any easier. What can be an exciting venture for one partner is invariably a painful grieving episode for other family members. Children watch appalled as their family, that secure and safe place that survived all their childhoods, is swiftly dismantled.”
Some time ago I met Jeremy. He too had reached a period in his marriage when he said he no longer felt in love. Whether that was hastened by his being attracted to a woman in his office is something we’ll never know. But I suspect his marriage had been going through a stale patch, and the new woman made him look at his wife, his life – his lot – with a growing dissatisfaction.
He told me his story on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a McDonald’s next to a cinema complex. He was now divorced and had recently broken up with the woman he’d left his wife for. He had access to his children once every two weeks. Rhys was five and Victoria, ten. They were sitting at a nearby table, colouring and looking bored. He said, “It’s hard to know where to take them if it’s raining,” and then added, “I’d like to tell all the men out there that the affair is great – for a while. The sex is great, and the excitement is great, and the feeling of being young again is great – but it’s just not worth it. These are my kids, for goodness’ sake. I’m their father and I’ve just been with them for three hours stuck in a lousy cinema because there’s nowhere else to go, and now I have to take them back like a couple of library books.”
I know that marriages break up. I know that some marriages cannot survive. I understand that. But the affair is in a class of its own for destroying the world of ordinary families – families that weren’t perfect, but could have made it and been relatively happy together.
Some years ago I went to see a London play. In the last scene, the lead actor breaks down in tears. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I have even seen; his wailing seemed to come from his very soul. After we left the theatre my friend said, “I have never seen such a portrayal of grief. I felt I could hear the mucus catching in his nose as he wept.”
The affair could happen to you and to me tomorrow, but as I watch couple after couple pay the incredible price that it so often demands, and as I see the fallout in the lives of children, I am reminded of something George Bernard Shaw said: “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
We live in a world where personal happiness is put at a premium, but often when we pursue it, we find it eludes us. Sometimes, even for the sake of our own long-term happiness, we have to begin with not what is “best for me”, but for them.
We have to love – at least for a time – in January.
If the thrill of track riding has started to fade, the whizz-bang dashboard on your bike gives you a headache and you’re concerned about becoming a Sunday couch potato rather than living life to the full, then The Monkey Run is for you. If it can’t rekindle your love for bikes then it really is time to hang up your boots and buy yourself a new pair of novelty slippers.
The Monkey Run took place for the first time this April and involved 14 brave/stupid guinea pigs being led blindfolded into the Sahara desert, 12 hours from Marrakech, and told they had to get to a destination on the Atlantic Coast, 1,000km away, six days later.
The only slight glitch, they had to travel the 1,000 unknown kilometres on a Monkey Bike. For those who aren’t familiar with the 49cc Monkey Bike, it’s very small, standing not much taller than knee height. It’s totally inappropriate for riding across a desert and almost guaranteed to break down every few miles.
For all their shortcomings, however, the riders on the pioneer Monkey Run agreed they wouldn’t have wanted to ride it on any other bike. Not only were they able to fit through tiny gaps in traffic, but there wasn’t far to fall when they came off. The bikes were light enough to carry when they inevitably broke down and so mechanically basic that a roll of gaffer tape went a long way.
A whole lot of fun
Most importantly, though, the bikes were a whole lot of fun. Being so low to the ground meant travelling at 20mph felt like racing at ten times that speed, and they were unwavering in their ability to bring a smile to the faces of all around, whether the riders themselves or those rolling around on the floor laughing as grown men went past on bikes fit for children.
It wasn’t just about the bikes, however, and once au fait with their totally inadequate steeds, the riders had to deal with the fact there was no set route to their destination, the Atlas Mountains were in the way and getting lost and staying with strangers was encouraged.
It was this “being thrown in at the deep end” that made the trip so memorable for most. As riders struggled with their bikes across the Sahara, looking like something out of Mad Max, they were blown away by the vastness and beauty of the desert landscape, nights were spent sleeping under the stars in the Atlas Mountains without even a tent for protection, sweeping roads were swapped for potholed, unmapped tracks and river crossings, bizarre wildlife encountered and a lot of new friends, especially local mechanics, made.
“I expected fun on a motorcycle while getting lost and a lot of off-road. Did it match it? We made it match, taking around 100km off-road pistes and paths every day. Was it good fun? Very. Dangerous? Sometimes while riding along the cliffs. Not Ngalawa Cup dangerous, but still risky, depending on where you ride and how.
It didn’t take us long to get lost, around 15 minutes after the start line, since my teammate and I had no maps whatsoever. A cool chap called Jules appeared just in that moment and from there on, we three rode the hell out of those Chinese Monkey Bikes for the remaining 1,370km.
Going flat out downhill
The bikes were pretty good fun, riding flat out downhill on off-road pistes. You could actually make them jump and they were much more competent in the dirt than I thought. I can assure you that I abused my bike as much as I could. Including taking her one metre deep into the sea water of the Taghazout Beach. Twice. Even then it started (after taking all the water out, obviously, and pushing a lot). Not everybody had that luck.
We had been in Morocco before, and people have always been very kind to us. The other riders were also all pure adventurers and very cool guys. All in all, The Monkey Run was a very funny little adventure. If you do it well, you can find some pretty funny and good troubles.”
Orphanages for the Privileged - Boarding Schools and Abandonment - By Dr Mark Stibbe
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have watched at least one film version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol in the festive season. Maybe you watched what is arguably the best adaptation, A Muppet Christmas Carol, or the Alastair Sim version that made such an impression on me as a young boy when Mum and Dad took me to see it at the Noverre Cinema in Norwich. Whichever rendition you enjoyed, I hope you paused to ask one simple question: “Why did Scrooge become the man he did?”
In the recent animated version showcasing the multifaceted Jim Carrey, we get an answer. Early in the story, the ghost of Christmas past takes the elderly Scrooge back in time, to his old prep school and a dusty room full of desks. There is no one there except the boy Scrooge. Everyone else has gone home for the Christmas holidays and the place is deserted. The boy who remains is described by Dickens as solitary and neglected. As he sees his abandoned, younger self, Dickens simply says that Scrooge sobbed.
This moment, so easily passed over by most readers, so criminally neglected by many movie directors, is the key to everything that follows. The reason why Scrooge becomes the man he does – as cold as the winter snow outside his underheated office – is established by the brilliantly insightful Dickens in this one single moment. For here Scrooge is portrayed to us as an orphan – not an orphan in the mould of the pauper Oliver Twist, but a child abandoned and forgotten in the privileged world of boarding school.
The boarded heart
Dickens knew a thing or two about human psychology. He saw with unusual clarity that the fertile conditions for our destructive human behaviour are so often created by childhood wounds. For Dickens, the root of Scrooge’s problems lay in his prep school abandonment. The boy’s father, who had been aloof and somewhat cruel, had simply abandoned him. This caused the young Ebenezer to disengage emotionally and cultivate frozen feelings. He created a boarded heart in order simply to survive.
In this respect Dickens was anticipating with remarkable prescience recent developments in psychology. Psychologists such as Nick Duffell (author of The Making of Them [Lone Arrow Press]) and Joy Schaverien (author of Boarding School Syndrome [Routledge]) have demonstrated that being exiled at boarding school at any early age leaves severe emotional scars. Not everyone, of course, is damaged. Some enjoy the experience. But many do not and go on to live their whole lives with boarded hearts and homesick souls.
It’s fascinating today to see how many ex-boarders are beginning to come out in the media, confessing how being abandoned, sometimes also abused, at the age of seven or eight at prep school left a destructive legacy – the loss of emotional health and an inability to relate to their nearest and dearest with intimacy. Celebrities from Benedict Cumberbatch to Kirstie Allsopp are now beginning to tell their stories of boarding school pain. Broadsheet as well as tabloid newspapers frequently contain such testimonies.
Succeeding at work, failing at home
It will come as no surprise that this kind of confession doesn’t always meet with a sympathetic hearing, especially from those who have a vested interest in supporting the boarding school system, or from those of an anti-establishment persuasion. Whenever any ex-boarder has the courage to stand up and say they were wounded by their boarding experience, someone will always claim that boarding school does a person no harm whatsoever, or insist that they shouldn’t be complaining at all.
Look at the fallout over the recent storyline in the long-running and much-loved radio show, The Archers. I don’t listen to the programme myself, but I am very aware of the current furore about it. The scriptwriters have come in for vitriolic criticism for suggesting that the behaviour of Rob Titchener, an abusive husband, was caused in part by boarding school abandonment and abuse. Rob is apparently the most hated character on radio, with 5 million listeners booing him every month.
When it was suggested that Rob’s bullying was at least partly caused by his boarding school wounds, the chair of the Independent Schools Council couldn’t hold himself back. “Private school pupils generally make excellent husbands and wives,” he claimed. Quite what the empirical data was for that comment was not disclosed. The latest research by psychologists suggests quite the opposite. Boarding school too often sets a person up to succeed at work but fail as a spouse or parent where it matters, at home.
Becoming a survivor
This is my story. I was sent to boarding school on my eighth birthday – on 16 September 1968, to be exact. My adoptive parents meant well, assuring me that this would be the making of me and that I would receive a rounded education and become in the process a well-rounded person. But as they drove away, I felt utterly terrified and alone. The headmaster, a sadist who was later told by the governors to leave for chipping a boy’s spine with a cricket bat, beat me with a cane in front of my dormitory on my first night.
After three more severe and humiliating public beatings in my first fortnight, I crawled under the bedclothes one night, hugged my teddy bear, Edward, and made a vow that if I was going to survive the next ten years, I would have to stop feeling. And that’s what I did. I boarded my heart and became emotionally disengaged – a mini-survivor with an armoured soul in an orphanage for the privileged. Having been orphaned in 1960, all I can say is that this was a second orphaning – and far worse, because this time I was conscious of it all.
In the years that followed, I learned to believe the lie that acceptance comes through performance, and so I strove to succeed in everything. I went into my working life with the same philosophy, with devastating results at home. I succeeded as the leader of a very large church and as a global conference speaker – but I failed at home. A lack of emotional engagement, along with some very wrong choices, led to a broken marriage. For this I will always be sorry, even though I know I’m forgiven.
The healing begins
The man who was courageous enough to lift the lid on the great silence about boarding school abandonment and abuse was psychologist Nick Duffell. He has not only written three significant books on the subject, but many articles in psychological journals and newspapers. He also runs regular retreats for boarding school survivors, where men and women can share their stories and, in the process, achieve some measure of healing from the traumas they suffered in their childhood.
I came across Nick’s work when I was receiving two years of intensive psychotherapy after the break-up of my former marriage. I was living on my own at the time in Oxfordshire, driving every fortnight to Derby to sit with a counsellor who specialised in deep-rooted childhood pain. After three or four sessions, she placed a copy of Nick’s book, The Making of Them, in my hands, and with that I began to understand how I had become the man I had. It was painful but also so, so healing.
Gradually, over the months that followed, I began to share stories from those hidden ten years at boarding school. I shared how I’d felt on my eighth birthday as my parents’ car drove away. I exposed my deepest secrets – of physical abuse by the headmaster, sexual abuse by staff, religious abuse by a man who masqueraded as a Christian but whose heart was set on using his wealth and influence to bring many boys into a place of oppression, from which some have never escaped. As I did, the healing began to come.
Our heart’s true home
How, then, can a person be set free from all of this? If you’re a boarding school survivor yourself, remember Scrooge. His breakthrough was a spiritual one – the result, in fact, of the intervention of three spirits. There’s a clue here. Dickens understood that ultimately a frozen heart can only be thawed with help from heaven. He knew, as a Christian himself, that even though there may be pain in the night, there can be indescribable joy in the morning if we open our hearts to the supernatural grace of a good and kind Father.
That is my story too. As I underwent two years of counselling, I laid my soul bare and in the process made myself available to the healing power of my loving heavenly Father – not the remote God of college chapel, nor the cruel God of misguided fundamentalists, but the perfect, loving Father revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, in whose arms our hearts find their true home, in whose presence our fractured lives are made whole again, so that we can be what my adoptive father wanted me to be – a fully rounded person.
Today I share my story wherever and whenever I can. My latest book, Home at Last: Freedom from Boarding School Pain (Malcolm Down), is the story of my recovery as well as a handbook of healing for those still suffering the long-term legacy of pain from boarding school. Along with a virtuoso team (HALT, the Home at Last Team), I run healing retreats for ex-boarders. In every case, I’m seeing people awakened and restored, like Scrooge. If you’re an ex-boarder, it’s time for you to live, laugh and love again.
McConaissance Man - By Jake Taylor
Once consigned to the Hollywood pigeon-hole marked ‘romantic comedies only’, Matthew McConaughey has reinvented himself in the best way possible, with a host of acclaimed performances and an Oscar now under his belt. This stunning turnaround would not have been possible, however, had it not been for the strong values handed down by his devout parents – the same values he strives every day to pass to his own, growing family.
Although Matthew McConaughey could boast of a cinematic career stretching back over 20 years by the time he appeared in Dallas Buyers Club, the performance, subsequent critical acclaim and Academy Award win re-established the Texan star as one of Hollywood’s most talented leading men.
But it wasn’t always this way. For much of McConaughey’s early career, he was the go-to hunk for directors of romantic comedies – with some (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) marginally more successful than others (The Wedding Planner). Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to envisage the articulate Oscar-winner as nothing more than eye-candy, but McConaughey’s move from soap-sap to superstar was no accident. The actor, in his own words, “un-branded” in a bid to head back to the types of roles which marked his early film career.
“I was tired of doing romantic comedies and films which didn’t really mean much to me anymore,” he explains. “It was time to go back to the kinds of stories which inspired me to become an actor in the first place.”
This career shift meant McConaughey was more than willing to “say no” to roles that purported to pigeonhole his undoubted ability in the past. Two years passed before he began to be inundated with offers. He told Deadline in 2014 that he felt he had become “a new good idea”.
“In un-branding, I found anonymity,” he said. “And anonymity is good for an actor, and for people’s perception of an actor and the process with which people choose actors to play characters. My lifestyle, living on the beach, running with my shirt off, doing romantic comedies … people were throwing that together and going, well that’s who McConaughey is, he’s just rolling out of bed, getting dressed and he goes and does it. On the romantic comedies, I had to say well, that was fun, but I’m not feeling as challenged as I want to feel.”
Since his “un-branding”, the 46-year-old has lent his name to success after success, with roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar, Mud and celebrated TV crime drama True Detective solidifying the McConaughey name as one now intrinsically linked to dark, gritty storytelling and impeccable on-screen performances. His triumphant return to film and seemingly effortless segue into bona fide blockbusters was quickly dubbed ‘The McConaissance’.
“That was a whole new chapter for me,” he says. “I didn’t chase any of those films and it made me think that I was right to take a chance, say no to the kind of thing I had grown tired of doing, and wait until something good came aroundand it did.”
His latest project, however, animated comedy Kubo and the Two Strings, has finally given McConaughey the chance to blend two of his greatest passions in life: film and family.
“I loved the story, and it was something my children could finally see – it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, let’s watch True Detective tonight,’” he laughs. “Kids are going to love this film, but so will adults.”
And after tackling huge social issues in Dallas Buyers Club – the film follows his character’s plight to help fellow AIDS patients get the medicine they need – McConaughey is adamant that his first foray into children’s entertainment can hold the same intrinsic value as his previous, edgier roles.
“That’s what is so important about these kinds of stories that carry deep and beautiful messages for children,” he says. “Kids get so deeply involved when they’re watching animated films, and a movie like this can be very entertaining on one level and also have many serious underlying themes.”
From rom-com to Hollywood heavyweight
For someone who has successfully moved from rom-com lead to genuine Hollywood heavyweight quite late on in his career, McConaughey says these films inspire people to “have the courage to write the third act of your life in order to get the happy ending”.
Now, more so than ever, the actor appears to have secured his own “happy ending”. An Oscar-winner and hot property in Hollywood, the dedicated father and husband currently resides in his home state of Texas with his wife of four years, Camila Alves, and their three children, sons Levi and Livingston, and daughter, Vida.
McConaughey’s own childhood centred on a family unit that kept together through tremendous ups and downs. His parents, Mary Kathleen and James, eventually ended up marrying each other three times –divorcing twice. Despite the fluctuating nature of his parents’ relationship, it’s clear that McConaughey still holds his parents in the highest regard.
“My mother was a kindergarten teacher, very strong, very determined, who led us by example,” he recalls. “My father has been a very tough football player, but my mother definitely never took any [rubbish] from us kids.
“One day, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, I remember asking my mother constantly about wanting to have a new pair of shoes. Finally, she took me into a poor section of town and showed me children who had no shoes at all. And she asked me, ‘Do you understand now? Do you really need another pair of shoes?’ That was the kind of moral rectitude that both my mother and father instilled in us.”
Alongside this, McConaughey’s parents introduced their son to Christianity – and the star has remained a man of faith in one form or another, even going so far as to reserve his first thanks during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2014 for God.
“That’s who I look up to,” he said on stage. “He has graced me with so many opportunities that I know are not by my hand, or any human hand. He has shown me that gratitude reciprocates.”
It was the birth of his first child, Levi, in 2008, however, that inspired McConaughey to make faith a focal point of his life once again. That decision, too, was inspired by the spiritual views of his parents and nostalgic recollections of his own childhood.
“As soon as we had children, I was like, ‘You know what? That was important to my childhood’,” he explained to GQ in 2014. “Even if it was just for the ritual of giving an hour-and-a-half on Sunday to yourself, to pray and to think about others, even if you’re tired.
“I noticed how much I missed it and needed it. It’s a time for me to take inventory of my last week, to look at what’s in the future, to give thanks and think about what I can work on to do better.”
Versatility in film and life
Much like McConaughey’s innate ability to avoid typecasting in his acting career – the star has covered every genre from romantic comedy to B-movie horror, thoughtful thriller and animated feature – his faith has transcended definition over the course of his life. Though his parents were devout Methodists, McConaughey was married in a private Catholic ceremony and now describes the church his family frequents in Texas as “non-denominational” – a place that is “based in the faith that Jesus is the son of God, but where many different denominations come in”.
As for his own personal relationship with God, the actor told GQ he views the deity as “somebody who can help answer my questions”. This intrinsic curiosity has always been a huge part of McConaughey’s life and career, both on-screen and off.
“As a child, I was always asking my mother a thousand questions: who? What? Why?” he says. “I would never stop. I’m very fortunate that my job as an actor enables me to travel and meet new people and learn about different moments in history and different cultures. I want my children to search for answers about their world and understand as much as they can and try to get closer to the truth. It’s a process that never stops.”
The trials and tribulations of modern society have also affected how McConaughey treats his children’s questions, even though he admits that “the truth may be hard sometimes”.
“Children are smart; they absorb everything and the news these days is filled with so much violence that you can’t ignore it,” he says. “You need to talk about serious things with them sometimes. Even though the truth burns, it’s going to enlighten them more as compared to what they’ll get out of playing video games where you do nothing but shoot people.”
He continues: “A parent has to walk a fine line between being a parent and a friend. Those two roles intersect and overlap. I’ve seen many examples where adults are trying to be friends to their children in circumstances where they’re doing a disservice [to them]. But I understand how hard it can be to know which role you need to play at the right time.”
Captain fun and Friday nights
In this description of the sometime struggles of parenthood, McConaughey draws comparisons to Beetle, his character in Kubo and the Two Strings.
“In the film, Beetle is a protector; he’s a hero in his own mind, and maybe so in reality as well,” he says. “He’s also Captain Fun. That’s what Friday nights are like in our household, where the answer is ‘yes’ to most everything, and we have fun along the way.”
As well as recently having the privilege of enjoying a film with his children – “my daughter Vida spoke in my ear, ‘Papa, Beetle sounds just like you’” he smiles – McConaughey has recently wrapped on Free State of Jones, an American Civil War drama. The star portrays Newton Knight, a Robin Hood-esque character who rebelled against the Confederates on behalf of his fellow farmers.
“When [director] Gary Ross came to me with the story and I read the script it was so amazing that I asked him if he was sure it was true,” McConaughey explains. “He was a man of the highest moral principles who fought to defend his freedom and that of his neighbours by forming an army of poor white farmers and runaway slaves.”
Knight’s morality and “innate need to correct injustice” are an inspiration to the Texan actor, whose inherent values of right and wrong were inherited from the respectful traditions of his own Southern parents.
“When the war was over, he didn’t stop fighting against injustice,” he says. “Knight wasn’t one of those men who went back to just getting along, he kept on fighting for justice and for the rights of African-Americans in the South to the day he was buried next to his wife Rachel, a former slave, when he was 94. He was a defender of freedom for everyone.”
Despite his questioning nature and ability to draw stimulation from the world around him, there will always be one person to whom McConaughey returns time and time again in times of strife: his wife, Camila.
“We were lucky that we met at the right time,” he agrees. “She inspires me to be myself and pursue what I love. She pushes me to take risks, to grow, and to be a better man.”
It’s clear that whatever film or genre the marvellous Mr McConaughey turns his hand to next, his ability to subvert expectations and chase his dreams – the very essence of the McConaissance that took the cinematic world by storm – is drawn from the teachings of his childhood, the support of his blossoming young family, and those solid Southern roots.
“The more secure a man is at home,” he smiles, exuding the air of eloquent sincerity we have come to recognise as McConaughey’s modern trademark, “the higher and wider they can fly outside of it.”
Mission to Mozambique
Former project manager at British Airways, Steve talks about leaving a ‘proper’ job for a calling to the impoverished mission field of Mozambique, still reeling from a bitter 13-year civil war, and the two orphans that irrevocably changed the direction of his life…
“Mozambique has a very special place in my heart,” says Steve, 46, who took his first intrepid steps into the poverty-stricken African country in 2002. God moves in mysterious ways, as this was a result of an unpaid sabbatical from British Airways, keen to reduce its costs in the wake of the tragic events of 9/11 in New York. It was this year the course of Steve’s life changed forever.
It was during this year that he met Rebekah, his future wife and a British nurse, at Maforga Christian Mission in Manica province, central Mozambique. It was also in 2002 that Steve and Rebekah met orphans Zacharias (Zac) and Monica. “Zac and Monica’s parents had died from HIV/AIDS and the children were brought into the orphanage at Maforga,” Steve explained. “Zac was suffering from severe malnutrition and Rebekah provided round-the-clock care. Incredibly he recovered, and we both bonded with him and Monica like we had never done to any other children in our lives, prior to having our own. It was an extremely tough decision to relocate them back with their extended family in a nearby village. We would send money to Maforga to buy them food while based back in the UK and visited them on our occasional visits to Mozambique.”
The couple married in the UK the following year but something had instinctively changed in their lives and they returned to Mozambique in 2005, with a young baby. They were utterly devastated that same year when Zac (five) and Monica (nine) tragically died.
“Monica’s final few days were spent at Maforga and she called for us,” said Steve. “We flew down from the north of Mozambique, where we were then based, when we heard the news. They shouldn’t have died and nothing could have prepared us for the loss. I’ve been through some very dark valleys and my faith has been tested through the experience. But ultimately Monica and Zac continue to be a huge inspiration and motivation to what I do. They inspire me in my efforts to help lift people out of poverty.”
Steve said that we could learn much from the Mozambican people and their less ‘cluttered’ way of life. “They live very much for the day and don’t think about the next,” he said. “There is real beauty in that level of simplicity, as people focus purely on their relationships.” Steve, however, is acutely aware that life is fragile in Mozambique and is not to be romanticised.
“There is desperate poverty with people often not knowing where the next meal is coming from, particularly in the months before the harvest,” he explained. “Each season brings about its own challenge. For example, family homes are often crafted from materials such as wooden sticks, mud and straw, with some collapsing in the rainy season. Things that in the UK we just cannot get our heads around. I set foot in Mozambique a decade after the civil war when it was the tenth poorest in the world. One in five children would not make it to five. I thank God for the Millennium Development Goals which took responsibility globally for beginning to address the horrific nature of infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth.”
Steve was appointed The Leprosy Mission’s programmes and advocacy officer for Africa earlier in 2016, travelling to Africa for up to 12 weeks a year to monitor projects in the field.
On a recent visit to Mozambique he was able to witness a transformed community in Cabo Delgado, as a result of a collaboration between the Peterborough-based charity and the Department for International Development, reaching out to 5,000 people struggling with the devastating impact of leprosy.
“I was thrilled to be sent back to Mozambique for work. It’s always a delight to go back as it has a real sense of home now for me; I think my heart will always belong there. It was an amazing visit. With poverty often comes leprosy, and in these communities it is common to see people with hands and feet disabled by leprosy. Those affected by the disease still experience severe stigma, meaning that they continue to hide symptoms because they’re afraid that they’ll be shunned.”
Steve and Rebekah have three children, and the family now live in the north of England while Steve bases himself in Peterborough during the working week.
“Working away from home in the week, I feel I throw the rest of the family’s carefully choreographed routine into disarray at the weekend,” Steve said. “I honestly don’t know how Rebekah does it, looking after three children and holding down a demanding job as a health visitor while all the time supporting me. God is equipping and strengthening her.”
“I have the privilege to live out a calling to serve people trapped in poverty and disease through my job at The Leprosy Mission,” he reflected. “I don’t think I’m anything special, as I think many people have a yearning in their heart to do something like this, but somehow find themselves trapped on the treadmill of a 'proper job'. The only difference between us is that I have been supported by my family to do what I feel called to do.
“Approaching middle age, health concerns, family obligations, education, financial commitments, ageing parents – the list of reasons not to follow your heart’s call seem never-ending. Believe me, Rebekah and I continue to wrestle with these issues long and hard. It also goes completely against the cultural flow to opt out of the rat race and pursue something different. It really is a privilege for me, and for any of us, to follow a dream – and it comes at a cost. I guess I’m only finally learning now, in my middle years, that for me this is what it means to follow Jesus. Micah 6:8 says it all for me really.”
“… And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV UK 2011)
The Hard Way
For a man in his 70s, Doug Scott shows no signs of slowing down; he is constantly busy. He has just returned from back-to-back meetings in Italy and is, at the time we speak, in the middle of a series of lectures celebrating his legendary ascent of Everest in 1975: Everest the Hard Way. The lectures are way of fundraising for Community Action Nepal (CAN), the charity that Doug helped create as a way of mountaineers giving something back to the Nepalese community. CAN’s patron is fellow climber Sir Chris Bonington, a good friend of Doug’s and leader of his much-celebrated 1975 ascent of Everest. Doug realised a long time ago that without the help and support of the local communities, many of the successful Himalayan climbs wouldn’t have happened. I’m talking to Doug through a contact at CAFOD (Catholic Aid For Overseas Development), which has partnered CAN to improve conditions for the rural poor, and they have jointly raised over £224,000 to build two schools in Nepal.
1994 saw their first project realised via profits from The Trekking Company, a pioneering advocate of responsible tourism, and topped up with donations they built a school and a health post and refuge shelters for the 300-plus porters, with good accommodation for the Western doctors. The environmental and welfare of Nepal are something that he is clearly very passionate about.
On top of the world
All the time I’m dying to ask him about Everest, which even for an armchair adventurer like myself still holds awe and majesty. It is, after all, the highest place on earth. I make the mistake of quoting a celebrity climber who had remarked that Everest wasn’t a terribly difficult mountain to climb. Doug is very quick, and passionate, to correct this. It turns out the ‘expert’ I am quoting is not quite as proficient as I would believe. I’m glad to listen as I’m expertly corrected. The main route to the summit isn’t a terribly challenging route, mainly because it has been kitted out with ropes and turned into an easy-access tourist route. It has become the bucket list adventure holiday choice of the Instagram generation. It is something that has had a detrimental effect on the environment, with litter and human waste having been a problem in the past.
Doug becomes clearly passionate when he answers my question about CAN having received an award as an advocate of responsible tourism. The actions are something that are obviously more important than the kudos, as Doug asks an assistant off-phone when they got the award.
Everest looms large in my questions, and I ask what was so special about his 1975 climb. He replies that the Southwest Face is still considered the ‘hard way’ to climb the mountain.
Everest: the hard way
Back in 1975 there had been six attempts on the summit before Doug and Dougal Haston had climbed and bivouacked on the South Summit at 8760m, the highest ever bivouac at that time. They had no sleeping bags and few oxygen tanks, two of the key pieces of equipment needed to combat the altitude and extreme cold that are the two dangers on Everest. It was late in the day and with the weather closing in, then had one last attempt to reach the summit. They made the summit late in the day, but without tent, oxygen or his down clothing Doug, together with Haston, climbed back down, hoping to make Camp Six before the light was gone altogether. They didn’t make it and had to excavate an ice cave to shelter from the extreme cold. In order to survive the night, both climbers had to keep moving and stay awake. To go to sleep would have meant death.
Doug makes it all sound very matter-of-fact and a little inconsequential. I find him very self-deprecating about his acts. The good thing for him, he says, is that the fame and prestige has enabled him to do something really worthwhile – his fame has funded all the projects. It is perhaps an attitude picked up from the local Nepalese who, when Doug returned to a monastery in 1975, had said to him, “You’re back from the summit. What’s so special about that?”
“So it was a little bit of a waste of time, not materially, as the huge press coverage helped to set up schools and outposts, hospitals and refuge shelters. Not to mention providing paid work for in excess of 300 porters, and airstrips and accommodation for Western doctors.”
The visionary climber
I ask him how his climbing style was – it has been described as ‘visionary’. It was as a result of his incredible Everest climb that he moved to a lightweight, Alpine style. He’d figured that if he could survive the extreme conditions of Everest then he would be OK for another climb in the same manner. He adopted a style where he and a partner would set off with one rope between them and all his equipment in a rucksack. There would be no sieging, no building of base camps and a long slow process of resupply and with no heavy oxygen cylinders.
After Everest, where he’d survived “without oxygen, sleeping bags and no frostbite” he knew he “would never need oxygen kit again”, “the burden [was] gone”. Lesser people would have probably thanked their lucky stars that they had survived, and would have made sure they had a surfeit of kit on future trips, but Doug is made of stronger stuff. Two years after Everest, he spent six days crawling down Baintha Brakk, known as The Ogre, after he had broken both his legs.
An obvious question springs to mind – does he still climb?, remarking how my own father is about the same age and has trouble negotiating the stairs. “Yes,” comes a very affirmative reply. In fact, he has just returned from a climbing trip with two of his trustees. Back in London, Doug relieves his daily stresses, and his backaches, by popping down to the Westway climbing wall. It is, he says, something that “takes him out of himself and reduces bad spirits”. He asks me if I’ve done any climbing, and I mention my terrible head for heights and my few attempts at a climbing wall. He surprises me by mentioning that he has a problem with heights when on man-made structures, particularly those with low parapets.
One final question – are there any mountains that Doug hasn’t conquered? He doesn’t pause for a second. He laments that he “never got round to climbing the huge peaks in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.” He describes fearsome, “huge, ice-covered mountains up to 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level”.
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