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 This made me withdrawn, very meek and placid.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.