Former criminal Paul Bramble describes himself as a walking miracle. Five years ago, he was a physical and mental wreck. After thirty years of drug abuse and 20 years as a career criminal, including four years on the run from police, he had hit rock bottom.
He was homeless and living in men’s shelters; his convictions for armed robbery under numerous aliases covered three pages, while his psychiatric and medical history would make your hair stand on end. He walked with a walking stick and was on eight medications to cope with everything from Hepatitis C to bipolar disorder. He was seriously considering ending it all with a drug overdose.
Today, Paul radiates joy and goodwill. The only pill he takes is a thyroid medication – he is cured of Hepatitis C and has thrown away his walking stick. He is not only free of pain; he plays touch footy and cricket. He is a respected member of the community, mentoring young Aboriginal offenders through Tribal Warrior, a programme that involves boxing and maritime training. He also acts as chaplain for the Redfern All Blacks, an Aboriginal rugby league team. To cap it all off, last December, he sailed with the first all-indigenous crew in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
“It’s [a story] of grace and redemption and transformation.”- Paul Bramble
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“At 52 my life has never been better,” says Paul, who is not Aboriginal but jokes that he has a black heart. “It’s a phenomenal story. It’s one of grace and redemption and transformation.”
You may wonder what caused this turnaround. It wasn’t being “saved” because Paul first called on the name of the Lord at age 12 at a holiday sailing camp. Over his life, he reckons he has gone forward at 47 altar calls and “every one of them was heartfelt, every one of them I would have rivers of tears coming down by face, uncontrollably sobbing and remorse.”
But each time, within a day, a week or a month, he would relapse and start using drugs again. “I would get pulled down, the biggest temptations would come in my life and I didn’t know how to resist. It was like I’d just get over one thing and then another thing would happen and it was just like a domino effect,” he says.
Paul’s world was turned upside down at the age of four when his father suddenly left. He then lost his mother too when he was adopted by a “super-strict” God-fearing couple who lived north of Sydney.
“It was a little bit overkill and you weren’t able to ask your parents any questions, and I was always getting smacked for asking why about things,” he recalls.
“I was exceptionally good at sport but I wasn’t allowed to pursue my sports. So even though I made the area state selections [for rugby], I couldn’t go to these things because that would be favouring me over the other children. That hurt me a lot because pretty much the only thing that got me through was my sport in those days … there was stability in the house but the love, the secret ingredient that we all need, was a little bit lacking.”
Paul started dabbling in drugs at about age 15 and a year later he moved on to heroin, which started the merry-go-round of robberies, jail, rehab and relapse.
“I’ve been to about 20 rehabs but there wasn’t really a heart change so when I got out within a week I’d bust again,” he admits.
“In that moment a very light, audible voice said to me ‘That’s how I feel when you’re not walking with me.’” – Paul Bramble
In the mid-80s his fiancée was killed in a car accident and he had to go to the morgue and identify her. After that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and “one day my whole body and mind broke down. Once you become mentally sick and physically sick and spiritually sick, it escalates.”
A year or so after his fiancée died, Paul started “looking for love in all the wrong areas” going from one bad relationship to another. Then his partner got pregnant and six months after she gave birth to a son they separated, which precipitated another emotional crisis.
“Knowing what it was like for me not to have my dad … here I was, that pattern was repeating. I was hurting so I needed to make heads or tails of it. I went to church at the time. I was using drugs and I could never talk to anybody at church because nobody would understand, which made it incredibly hard.”
One day, after a supervised visit with his son at church, Paul sat on the steps of the church and started crying.
“I felt like a train had hit me. You have no idea of the trauma inside and the anguish inside the whole situation. And in that moment a very light, audible voice said to me ‘That’s how I feel when you’re not walking with me.’ That was the first time that God was telling me how much he loved me, so when I wasn’t having a relationship with him and talking to him, that same pain and anguish that I was feeling that day he felt.”
Despite this significant moment, Paul spent another 20 years wrestling with and yelling at God. “I felt that God was a million miles away sometimes. I felt his love and grace was insufficient for me,” he said.
In the end what broke the pattern was realising from the little glimpses of God throughout his life, how much better life would be if he could put those times together.
“I was actually feeling suicidal and I’d been homeless for a couple of years and been in men’s shelters. I had just got housed and I felt like I was in a big coffin,” he recalls.
“I felt that God was a million miles away sometimes. I felt his love and grace was insufficient for me.” – Paul Bramble
Surrounded by brothels, nightclubs, drugs and crime, Paul felt his life had come full circle from when he was a teenager mixing with the bad boys at Kings Cross. “I was getting on towards 50 and I thought ‘what has my life become?’ and seriously feeling suicidal.
“In that moment I had someone supporting me and they rang and I told them how I felt and they said ‘look, just promise me you won’t do anything tonight.’ But anyway, it was in that moment that I actually cried out to God from the very essence.
“It was unlike anything I had ever experienced because when I did that – unlike some of the other times in the past – there was no agenda. It was like ‘God, I’m sick of running, I’m sick of being disobedient; I’m just going to surrender … Take me and I will do whatever it takes.’”
Within weeks of that total surrender, Paul was attending church regularly, was off his medications, got rid of his walking stick and felt joyful and at peace. And he has been able to sustain that journey for five years.
His involvement with the community programme Tribal Warrior has given Paul a sense of belonging and sense of value and worth. He has also begun to study at a Bible college.
“For most of my life it was about me – drug addicts and people lying and scams, their life is about them and this programme actually taught me that it’s not about you; it’s about others. And I knew then that I had something to give to others; I had life experiences to share with the young kids – a 19, 20-year-old boy that’s going through some difficult times – maybe I can deposit something in his life that will change his life, if not there and then maybe in the future.
“Then I realised that the more you contribute and serve, the more you get back anyway. If you give out of the goodness of your heart, God blesses you in other ways. Doors open.”
“God’s taken me full circle and all the bad, ugly, messy hurtful memories are now joyful and positive.” – Paul Bramble
Speaking on the Tribal Warrior boat that is used for cruises – not the yacht that sailed in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race – Paul said the idea for an all-indigenous yacht crew was to show young indigenous kids that they could have dreams and, given the right circumstances and training, they could be “more than a conquerors”.
While their dream of making history was almost scuppered when their yacht, Kayle, broke a keel, the crew was able to source another boat, Southern Excellence II, which sailed as a relay boat rather than in the official race. Paul says the boat’s unofficial 57th position out of 88 boats was good considering all the obstacles the crew faced, which culminated in nearly capsizing in the Bass Strait. “We had a torn mast, electrical problems, we had navigation problems, water coming in through the motor, a bilge pump that wasn’t working, we had the spinnaker going down twice at two in the morning.”
“But there’s an analogy in life – our goal was to get down there so whatever that took, whatever that looked like, that was our goal and we didn’t lose sight of that.”
Paul finds it incredible how God has been able to redeem so many traumatic events from his life. “Eighteen months ago I had a holiday in Queensland and I went past the roadside where my fiancée was killed in a car accident and for once there wasn’t that anguish or that pain in there, so that was remarkable. And there’s many instances of that where God’s taken me full circle and all the bad, ugly, messy hurtful memories are now joyful and positive.”