From Gangland to Promised Land
To the ‘Godless’ soul, he had everything; the money, the drugs, the women, the power. It’s easy to see how this lifestyle would appeal not only to John Pridmore; growing up in an abusive broken home, but to any powerless youth. During his childhood, Pridmore was faced with the fact that “the people you love can really hurt you”, following his parents’ divorce; the catalyst for his adopting of the opinion that ”if you don’t love you can’t get hurt...”. Years later, he would experience a massive turnaround in his life, through finding God. This review will look at the story of John Pridmore, the inspirational gangster-turned-christian, and how it may impact listeners. Also covered is a closer look at Pridmore’s conversion through Lofland/Skonov’s conversion motifs.
After the divorce of his parents, Pridmore lived with his abusive father and stepmother. In search of fulfilment which he wasn’t getting at home, he soon turned to crime, which led to his involvement with London’s gangs. Seeking power he lacked as a child, he watched himself descend as he became more brutal in order to move up the ranks in the gangster world. On day, he almost killed a man, then he came home to his flat and was most scared by the fact that he didn’t really care. Using drugs everyday just to make it through, he knew he had hit rock bottom that day. As he sat there in the aftermath of what he had done, he felt a voice, that of God, speaking to him. At that moment, he realised that God wasn’t a fantasy made up just to stop us from misbehaving, but God was real. He wanted to sop taking and give. This moment was the greatest buzz he’d ever felt, after searching everywhere for love, he had now found it. So he went to confession, and was set free. He felt great release in that moment, characteristic of the ‘mystical’ conversion motif. He then went on to attend retreats, where extensive interaction with other Catholics took place. He began speaking in schools, where he met Stuart, a young boy who was particularly moved and went on to do what Pridmore does. As he was still in the process of conversion, he displayed the ‘experimental’ motif by spending time in a monastery. But he felt his calling wasn’t to the monastery, as he liked to always be the one in control, the ‘big man’. He was invited to speak at the funeral of one of the gang leaders he had worked with, and was scared of breaking down this ‘big man’ illusion, as God had asked him to do. But when he got there, it was okay, and he spoke to some of the biggest villains about God. When asked what the biggest sentence he had served was he replied, “27 years without God...once you find God’s grace, there is nothing you want more.” Pridmore wishes that someone had of done what he does whilst he was growing up, and now lives to stop kids going through what he did.
It can clearly be seen how the Lofland/Stark conversion process theory relates to Pridmore’s case. It involves some or all of the following stages; tension, religious problem solving perspective, designation of self as a religious seeker, encounter the religion at a turning point in life, affective bonds with converts, weakening bonds with outsiders, extensive interaction (Inaba, 2004). Some of the six Lofland/Skonovd conversion motifs (intellectual, mystical, affectional, experimental, coercive, revivalist) can be seen in Pridmore’s conversion. Intellectual,(often over a long period of time, with a high degree of cognitive thought and contemplation involved; a logical ‘pros and cons’ type approach to conversion (Lofland &Skonovd, 1981, pg 377-9), is not seen in the case of Pridmore). Affectional (converts develop a strong liking for other believers and this plays a central role in their conversion (Lofland & Skonovd, 1981, pg377-9). While this was not part of Pridmore’s initial conversion, it helped to ‘set it in stone’, which is evident in the way he speaks of the strong bond and friendships he has within the church, more so than with anyone outside the church). Mystical (often some type of supernatural experience which cannot be put logically into words, a deep spiritual element. Very intense, sudden, and often involving auditory hallucinations (Lofland &Skonovd, 1981, pg377-9). This motif is evident in Pridmore’s conversion when he felt God ‘speaking ‘ to him in his flat. This motif is in a sense involuntary, i.e. the subject doesn’t choose it, but rather it suddenly comes upon them. The subject is often alone, and has had a period of stress building up for some time prior to mystical experience, both true of Pridmore’s case). Experimental (the potential convert goes along and interacts with other converts before actually becoming one themself (Lofland &Skonovd, 1981, pg377-9); this extensive interaction plays a crucial role (Inaba, 2004). This somewhat relates to Pridmore’s experience with regard to his involvement in retreats and visits to the monastery). Coercive (similar to brainwashing, this wasn’t a motif relevant to Pridmore’s conversion), and revivalist (converts are encouraged in large group situations (Lofland &Skonovd, 1981, pg377-9); wasn’t a contributing motif in Pridmore’s conversion either).
The aim of his program may not be to try and directly covert listeners to Catholicism, but to show them how even the evilest of lives can be transformed through God, thus deepening the faith of listeners who are already religious and getting non-religious listeners to think a little more on their stance with regard to God.
The aim is achieved through Pridmore sharing his very personal story; he has an extremely ‘touching’ way of addressing his audience, as though he is speaking to individual listeners personally. This is very effective as it makes people feel as though if a harsh criminal like him can find the grace of God, surely the average person can too. His calm, convincing tone and clear love for God really speaks to those who share in his faith, or who may be seeking to do so. Many issues, such as the problems with the Catholic church at present are raised (like sexual abuse), to which Pridmore answers that Priests are flawed just like the rest of us, and that part of God’s beauty is the fact that He can turn the bad into the good. And it doesn’t matter if we are perfect or good, as long as we are trying, God will be happy. The issue of people searching for fulfilment in false ways i.e. in his particular example, through crime, is addressed; the only real way to achieve satisfaction is to let God into your life. Some people may think that this is all well and good, but want to know where God is during their suffering, to which Pridmore replies that He is right there with the sufferer. God is the victim with His children, not the perpetrator. It is of course biased, especially since it was broadcast on the program “The Spirit of Things”, a religious program on ABC as a part of the World Youth Day celebrations. He comes across at times as ‘blinded’ by his faith in and love for God.
This is a very powerful program, even the toughest of sceptics could find themselves questioning the non-existence of God, or how their lives may be different if they hypothetically ‘found God’. His sharing of his compelling story is very inspiring and convincing in that it puts across the impression that anyone can find God and live a glorious life of grace.
ABC, 2008, ‘From Gangland to Promised Land’, The Spirit of Things, ABC Radio National, 27/7/2008
Inaba, 2004, ‘Conversion to New Religious Movements: Reassessment of Lofland/Skonovd Conversion Motifs and Lofland/Stark Conversion Process’ Human Sciences Research, Vol 11, No. 2, pp33-47.
Lofland, Skonovd, 1981, ‘Conversion Motifs’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol 20, pp373-385.