Peter Lyndon-James spent 26 years in prisons and institutions, but all he ever wanted was to be “a geek, a normal person”.
Thrown into a boys’ prison at the age of nine, he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence in and out of jail.
“I went to 16 different schools. I’d never played any sport, I’d never done anything normal. I don’t even remember seeing my parents having a meal,” says the man who now runs Shalom House, a rehab centre in the Swan Valley of Western Australia.
“My dad ran off with the babysitter when I was seven. Mum was an alcoholic, and she used to get beaten up by her boyfriend. Every time mum went into a rehabilitation centre I’d run away and live on the street because I didn’t want to be with strangers.”
After he had run away from a children’s home three times, the authorities lost patience and gave him an ultimatum: go and live with the father he hadn’t seen for two years or be sent to Longmore, which he didn’t realise was a boys’ prison.
“The reason I ran away is that I wanted to be with my mum or my dad. But when I looked at my dad, I heard this voice saying ‘he doesn’t love you any more.’ And I felt something go from my head to my heart and I thought I hated my dad, so I went to Longmore, which was a boys’ prison,” he says.
“I remember my dad dropped me there at 1 o’clock in the morning and they stripped me naked and gave me six comic books and marched me down into the prison. I was petrified.
“And I remember when they pushed me into the prison cell I started bawling my eyes out crying and saying ‘Let me out, I’ll behave, I won’t run away again.’”
During his first three months in Longmore he made friends with other boys from broken homes, who soon led him into a life of crime.
“I started breaking into houses and stealing cars and other stuff and became institutionalised. I spent seven years as a child locked up in Longmore. I’d be out for a day, back in for six months. Out for a month, back in for 11 months. Then I spent two years at Riverbank Prison.
“My whole life I just wanted to be a geek, a normal person. But every time I tried to hang around with normal people, I felt like I was weird, I didn’t belong. So I went back to where I felt comfortable, but the problem is where I felt comfortable everyone was doing what I didn’t want to do and I was trapped.
“I’ve got a saying that you can take the prisoner out of the prison but then you’ve got to get the prison out of the prisoner.”
In 2001, Lyndon-James had been released after serving one year of a five-year jail sentence and within a few months he was selling $40,000 worth of methamphetamine a day, selling guns and explosives and “mixing with some really heavy people.”
He had been on a bender for 16 days when he heard a police helicopter overhead. The TRG (tactical response group) raided with him shotguns and bulletproof vests, arresting him for “a pound of pot and a couple of handguns”.
He was released on bail and was under heavy police surveillance.
It was then that his wife decided it was time he got his act together and did some normal activities with his six-year-old son and a 1½-year-old son.
“On this particular day she enrolled me in a thing called grasshopper soccer. It’s an introduction to sports for kids.
“And I took my son over to this grasshopper soccer and they had all these geeks there, all these normal people, and I’ve got a bald head, I used to have a really big beard and gold jewellery on my fingers and I’m covered in tattoos.
“The dads had to stand there with their legs spread and if the kid kicked the ball through the dad’s legs then the dad had to roll around on the ground and make the kid feel all fluffy.
“I’m looking at my son and I’m thinking ‘If my son does this I’m out of here.’ And I stood there with my legs spread and my son kicked the ball through my legs and, as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t do it. I turned my back on my son and I walked home and I started to cry.”
But something started to change that day.
“My whole life I just wanted to be a normal person. I hated who I was, I hated the people I was hanging around, I hated the crimes I committed.”
When Lyndon-James got into his car the next day, he started hearing voices.
“I’d be driving along in my car and I kept hearing this voice and it said ‘Peter, I want you to follow me.’
“I’d keep pushing the voice aside and then there was a car in front and I kept hearing ‘Peter, I want you to follow me.’ And so I started following the car and it went right, it went left and then it pulled up at a park. I pulled up and looked around and over in the park I saw a mum and a dad having a picnic and I heard this voice clear as day. It said ‘Peter, I’m offering you this.’
“And I just sat in the car and I cried. This voice in my head was offering me what I wanted to be, which was to be normal.
“I drove off then it happened again. I kept hearing this voice, ‘Peter, I want you to follow me.’ I followed the car in front, went left, went right, pulled up. I looked at the house and it was a brand-new display home. And again I heard a voice saying ‘Peter, I’m offering you this.’ And I went back in the car and I cried.”
For the next two day he kept hearing voices and being offered things he had always wanted, but he thought it was the police “trying to screw my head up.” So he got on his motorbike in an attempt to get away from the police.
About 60km away from Perth, his brand-new bike died on him. So he started to hitchhike.
“I put my thumb out and a young couple stopped. And I got in the car and we got about 2km up the road and one fella turned round to me and said ‘Mate, I’ve got to tell you something.’ I said ‘What’s that?’ He said ‘God just told me to tell you that he loves you. And that he has a plan and a purpose for your life.’
“I just sat in his car and cried.”
“I went 3km up the road and said, ‘Mate, let me out of your ca
r.’ I got out of his car, I took my jacket off, hung it on a post, and went into the bush and just bawled my eyes out. I just hated myself.”
The same thing happened with his next lift from a tattooed bloke in a black pick-up truck.
“We got 3km up the road and he turned around and said ‘Mate, I’ve got to tell you something.’ I say ‘What’s that?’ He says ‘God’s just told me to tell you that he loves you and he has a plan and a purpose for your life.’ I sat in his car for about 15km and just cried.”
After calling his wife from a roadhouse, he went back out on the highway and was picked up by an elderly woman in an old Datsun.
“She said ‘I don’t normally pick hitchhikers up but you look different.’ I got in this granny’s car and about 16km up the road she turns around to me and she says ‘I’ve got to tell you something.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘God’s telling me to tell you that he loves you and he’s got a plan and a purpose for your life.’ I sat in the car for 45 minutes and just cried. She dropped me off on my doorstep.”
The next day his car died on him, giving him a chance to sit and process what had been happening to him.
“All I ever wanted was to be normal, but at the same time I’m mixing with a lot of heavy people doing drugs and guns and explosives. All of a sudden the car starts and I start panicking because I know the people doing the drugs and the guns want to kill me because they know that I want to swap sides.
“I then realised it was God. And the only time I ever heard of God was when I was at the boys prison at the age of 17. I’ve never been to church. I don’t come from a faith background, but I always thought that there was something up there.
“So I started panicking and I started drawing guns on a couple of cars to draw attention to myself and someone called the police.
“They came and chased me up the highway and they held me down in the middle of the road and they put two sets of handcuffs on me and I was screaming because I thought they were trying to kill me.
“They tried to put me in the back of the paddy wagon. I pulled on the side of the door and I was screaming. I thought if they get me in the paddy wagon they’re going to take me out in the bush and put a hole in me because I thought that they worked for who I was getting the drugs and guns off and that I knew too much.
“And so I was really, really scared. And I remember I had the handcuffs on and I was screaming, I was petrified, and all I could think of was two prayers I learned when I was a kid. ‘Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I will fear no evil.’ And then another one I could remember; ‘Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’
“And then I passed out. And when I woke up in hospital the next day, I had 13 stitches in my head, but I ripped everything out and said to my woman ‘I got to get out of here.’ And I went and booked into a motel because I just had to think.
“I went to sleep and I had a dream from God, and God said, ‘Peter, you’re going to tell people how I changed your life.’ And I woke up and I was bawling my eyes out. And he said ‘Peter, I want you to go to church.’
“I ain’t never been to no church. He said ‘I want you to go to church.’”
So the next morning Lyndon-James dressed up in some new clothes and got his family into the car and drove around looking for a church.
“I went to a church – he said ‘it’s not that church.’ I went to the next church, he said ‘not that church,’ so I went to the next church, ‘not that church.’ It was four-five hours driving around looking for a church before he said ‘I want you to go to that church.’”
The moment he walked through the door of the church Lyndon-James started shaking and crying.
“There was a speech about the uncircumcised philistines defying the armies of the living God. Before you know it I gave my heart to Jesus Christ and I heard him say ‘Peter, I want you to give up everything and follow me.’
“Everything I had was bought with drug money and stolen goods and so I gave it all away, I went back to prison because I was on bail for a pound of pot and a couple of handguns and when I was in prison God told me ‘I want you to go to Bible College.’”
When Lyndon-James got out of jail, he attended Bible College for three years full-time and received a bachelor of theology and then became a prison chaplain on a voluntary basis.
“The last 15 years have been the hardest 15 years of my life. It’s hard to be a Christian. Everything that was acceptable to me is unacceptable to God and the balance of power has to swap over,” he says.
In 2012 he saw a house with a big shed up for sale in the Swan Valley east of Perth and decided to buy it and turn it into a rehab centre.
Shalom House has been changing the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics for 3½ years now, with the help of a psychiatrist, a GP, and other support staff. It offers a strict 12-month residential programme, funded by $300 a week rent paid by residents.
“I’m not any different from other rehabs in that I hate religion with a passion, but I am a Christian and I say ‘how do I communicate what I know to be true without pushing religion down someone’s throat?’ But all my fellows ask Christ into their heart within the first two days; every one of my fellows is full on for God. I’ve got six fellows studying at one Bible College, and two at another Bible College. We go to three church services on every weekend because we are all different.
“Over four years we’ve had 128 through the programme and only 13 have completed the programme, but that’s 100 per cent success rate because every person that’s completed the programme is rock solid, not falling back.”More