Meet the Ex-Gangster Who Preaches to Prisoners in Jails Across the Globe

"I want to share the message that set me free to as many people as possible in the same way that if you found the cure for cancer, you'd want to share it with the world," says ex-con John Lawson.

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Apr 10 2016, 12:00am

Enjoy this grainy video of John Lawson preaching in South Africa

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Every so often, a slightly chunky middle-aged white guy will walk into a prison in a developing country with a bible tucked under his arm. Unlike most roving missionaries, John Lawson's an ex-con. In 2007 he turned straight upon his release from prison and a year later founded his own non-denominational Christian ministry. He was one of several reformed gangsters we recently interviewed to find out why they'd left behind their lives of crime, but John's story stood out as one that warranted a bit more exploration.

He now spends his time preaching in some of the world's most dangerous prisons, including jails in places where Christianity doesn't tend to be the dominant major religion. John's job as a minister is unpaid, so he says he relies on fundraising and the Christian generosity of people in largely poor countries who cover some of his expenses and put him up while he's doing his preaching thing. We spoke to him to ask about his travels, what it's like stepping back into prison, and some of his dodgiest experiences so far.

VICE: Hi John, what are some of the countries where you've preached in prisons so far?
John Lawson: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Moldova, the Ukraine, Romania, French-Guiana, Guatemala, India, Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, South Africa, New Zealand, Belgium, and Norway.

Did you ever feel threatened in any of them?
I never felt scared or threatened, even when I was allowed into a remand cell in Johannesburg Central A prison, where some of the prisoners were very violent guys. The guards almost had to push me inside, as the cell was packed from floor to ceiling. It looked very intimidating at first, but soon turned out to be a humbling and powerful experience.

There was a prison in Romania that was quite intimidating. It was notorious for housing some of the country's most violent men. Special guards escorted us into the middle of the prison, dressed all in black with full body armour, balaclavas, and guns. They had to protect their identity in case they were recognized, which could have put their families in danger on the outside. They pushed us inside a large classroom, locked the door, and quickly left before the prisoners entered.

That does sound a bit intimidating.
Yeah, it all went well though.

You also visited Pollsmoor Prison in South Africa, which was made notorious for those of us in the UK by Ross Kemp's documentary about its rampant gang and rape problem. What was that like?
Pollsmoor Prison is a hotspot for violence and intimidation. It's overwhelmed by the Numbers Gangs. They have a ranking system like the army, with privates, corporals, sergeants, captains, and generals. The only way to move up the ranks is to stab, kill, or rape people.

The day we arrived, I can remember a huge rat running over my foot as we stepped out from the darkness of the corridors into the bright sunlight of the exercise yard. We were surrounded on all sides by cell blocks, housing over 3,000 men. As we entered the yard, the prisoners who were locked in their cells pushed up against the windows, and welcomed us with cheering, shouting, and clapping. They made so much noise that it was like a football match.

As my friend Tony Anthony and I began to share the gospel message, the whole place fell into silence. As we prayed, it was surreal to hear these men repeat the prayer with their faces pressed against the bars, eyes closed, and hands extended out through the windows. It was a moment I'll never forget.

John in a South African prison AKA the sort of Tinder profile pic to possibly decide against. Photo by John Lawson

Did any prisons other than Pollsmoor stand out?
Yeah, I was shocked by the conditions of a prison in Zambia's Copperbelt region. TB was rife, HIV was through the roof, sexual assault was commonplace, and the overcrowding was horrendous. You had men sleeping like sardines, using each other's heads and feet as pillows.

The other shocking thing was that they locked up young boys aged 13 and up with the men. I cried as one young 14-year-old boy asked me to pray that the older men would stop raping him. He was an orphan serving four years for shoplifting food to eat.

That's grim. What about the rest of it?
I was pleasantly surprised by how clean a particular prison in Uganda was. There were also good arts, crafts, music, and education facilities there.

Why do you feel the need to speak in prisons across the world and not just stick to British ones?
I want to share the message that set me free to as many people as possible in the same way that if you found the cure for cancer, you'd want to share it with the world. I also operate by invitation, so if I get invited abroad, I go.

How would you respond to those who might draw parallels between what you do and the colonialist drive that spread Christianity to far-flung corners of the globe?
I would consider it an honor for anyone to critique me by comparing me to any missionary of the past. I would, of course, distance myself from any colonists that used the gun instead of the word.

Have you got any other visits planned in the immediate future?
I will be visiting more prisons in Romania, Canada, and Ukraine later in the year [Editor's note: never one to clock off, John only agreed to be interviewed on the condition that we would include this last church-y statement]. I would like add that all this has only been possible through Jesus Christ, that I owe my life to God, and that it is him that gives me the strength to go out there into these prisons. I gave my life to God one day in my cell in Glenochil when I accepted that I was headed for hell, as I told you in the previous interview. I believed that Christ was crucified for my sins, that he died on the cross, and that God raised him from the dead after three days. In that moment, I turned away from my sins and placed my faith and trust in Jesus, which changed my life.

John has a memoir out now called 'If A Wicked Man.'

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